Now What? – Act II

The government has re-opened but governing by crisis continues. On Monday, Senate Democrats opted for a tactical retreat and agreed to a resolution to fund the government for three weeks in exchange for a promise from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to permit debate on an immigration measure. This allowed Republicans and the White House to claim victory in the weekend standoff while angering progressives and immigration rights groups, and permitted Democrats the flexibility to adjust their strategic position in an ongoing battle over immigration policy that still has no obvious conclusion.

On Saturday, I wrote that short of a new election only intense political pressure would end the standoff. Weekend polling confirmed that Republicans were receiving a larger share of the blame for the shutdown—as expected for the party controlling the White House and both houses of congress. But there were warning signs for Democrats. The margins were not overwhelming, and the narrative that Democrats shut down the government through a senate filibuster was taking hold in the mainstream press. Democratic leaders quickly concluded that these circumstances would make it hard to generate the political pressure necessary to bring Republicans around to their position, and understood that a prolonged shutdown would hurt their members from red states expecting close re-election contests this year while dramatically raising the stakes with an energized base if they ended up retreating after a long fight. It’s instructive to look at the senators who were given a pass by leadership to keep the government running on Friday. McCaskill. Manchin. Heitkamp. Donnelly. All red-state Democrats up for re-election. Now look at the senators who voted against yesterday’s resolution re-opening the government. Sanders. Warren. Harris. Booker. Gillibrand. Your 2020 presidential hopefuls.

If this were just a stand-off between Republicans and Democrats, it wouldn’t be difficult to envision how it gets resolved. In fact, we’ve already seen the winning compromise in the form of the bipartisan agreement rejected by the president last week. Democrats get protection for DREAMERs. Republicans get funding for border security. Everybody gets to claim victory. But there is a third party in this dispute. The ascendant radical faction of the Republican Party will never be on board with a solution that allows DREAMERs to stay in the country. Readers of this page know that I have long characterized Republicans as two parties sharing one body, and I think it is impossible to understand this conflict without recognizing how it is pitting the Republican Party against itself. Conservative Republicans like Lindsey Graham can be parties to a compromise measure because they can accept DREAMERs living in America. Radicals cannot—and the immigration issue is fundamental to them. If one party in a negotiation rejects the premise of another party it turns the negotiation into a zero-sum dispute. That’s where we are now that the government has temporarily reopened and it’s where we were on Friday when it was temporarily closed. Nothing has changed except how Democrats assess their strategic positioning.

Progressive critics of yesterday’s vote have reason to believe that any promise by Mitch McConnell is empty. But that misses the point. Even if the Senate passes a version of the DREAM act it still has to clear the House, where reactionaries hold the balance of power in the Republican caucus, and be approved by a feckless anti-immigrant president surrounded by radical influences. Which brings me back to the assertion I made on Saturday—it will take enormous political pressure on Republicans to get them to support a compromise that will crack open their party. Democrats now have three weeks before the next shut down vote to figure out if that is possible.