What’s the Government Shutdown ‘About’?

The partisan blame game over the impending government shutdown is a close reflection of varying assessments of public opinion. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

During this long Friday of partisan finger-pointing speeches punctuated by the occasional (apparently fruitless) Schumer Goes to the White House surprise, tonight’s government shutdown has become more and more certain. So what’s the shutdown “about,” anyway?

Watch a few minutes of Senate-floor speeches and you’ll discern the binary choice right away. For Democrats, the shutdown is “about” Republican misgovernment and the GOP’s refusal to bargain in good faith over several outstanding issues, including immigration. For Republicans, the mess is “about” Democrats’ refusal to take an easy deal that includes CHIP funding for six years because they are captive to “illegal immigrants” and their irrational demands for Dreamer protections that they don’t even need just yet.

These two competing messages are being virtually dictated by public-opinion findings, as summarized by Paul Kane last night:

Public and private polling is giving each side something to hang their hat on if the federal government partially shuts down this weekend — an increasingly likely scenario. For Democrats, there is hope in surveys showing that more Americans would blame Trump and the GOP. For Republicans, the numbers offer this glimmer: In conservative states, the blame would shift to Democrats if the public perceives the immigration issue as the reason for the impasse.

As Eric Levitz points out, when it’s all said and done, the shutdown is not going to have a big impact on November’s midterm elections. It’s true that Republicans swept the 2014 midterms after getting most of the blame for an October 2013 government shutdown, but the damage to Republicans from the 2013 shutdown was very quickly offset by the damage that the botched healthcare.gov rollout inflicted on Barack Obama and Democrats. Blame for this shutdown might have a different relationship with subsequent events.

But as Levitz also argues, we seem to be in an entirely different environment now, with a president who generates negative stories every other day and takes over the news cycles with tweets the rest of the time. This may be why some Democrats are adding to their standard message the plausible charge that we’d have reached an immigration deal by now if Trump wasn’t such a weather vane and didn’t express himself with racist obscenities.

Regardless of who gets “blamed” for the impasse, if the saga reinforces the impression that the GOP is led by a president with the attention span and temperament of a moody child, that’s all to the good from the perspective of Democrats who want the midterms to be “about” Donald Trump.

What’s the Government Shutdown ‘About’?