For a quarter-century now, it has been a hallowed ritual in Washington for Democrats and Republicans to use negotiations over funding to blame the opposing side for shutting down the government. Democrats appear to have won this latest round. Republicans, or at least those speaking on the record, express mystification at just how they pulled off this tricky feat. “I think [Senator] Schumer was very shrewd in his efforts to make certain that whatever blame is to be had for a shutdown doesn’t rest with the Democrats,” Republican senator Jerry Moran told Politico.
Just how did the Democrats prevail in this complex and mystifying ritual? A close analysis of the steps in this delicate dance reveals that very little shrewdness was required.
1. Trump demanded to hold a meeting in front of the media. Reportedly, Trump believes video of him squabbling over deadlines with Congressional leaders makes him look presidential. “Although aides often urge him to keep such meetings closed to the media,” reports the Washington Post, “Trump likes the visual of him at the center of a room leading a meeting with lawmakers because he looks like he is ‘in charge,’ according to a former White House official.”
2. Trump refused to take the meeting private. During the meeting, Nancy Pelosi implored the president to repair to a private room where they could negotiate out of camera view. Trump ignored her.
3. Trump loudly and repeatedly claimed responsibility for shutting down the government. This is really the key step in the sequence. It is tricky to blame the opposing party for a shutdown when you say things like, “I will take the mantle,” “I’m not going to blame you for it,” and, “I will take the mantle of shutting down, and I’m going to shut it down for border security.” At this point, it would have been hard for Democrats to take the blame for the shutdown even if they wanted to.
4. Trump said he was shutting down the entire country. Traditionally, Republicans try to survive shutdowns by minimizing the importance of the federal government, and wryly noting that the American people are living their lives happily and unfazed by the absence of the federal Leviathan. Trump instead took the opposite approach. “If we have to close down the country over border security, I actually like that in terms of an issue,” he announced, equating a shutdown of the federal government with a shutdown of the entire nation.
5. Trump flung a folder. “One administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Trump appeared upset after leaving the meeting, flicking a folder and sending its papers flying out,” reports the Los Angeles Times.
During this negotiation, Schumer’s main strategic contribution was trying not to laugh. He was largely unsuccessful.
If Schumer was playing three-dimensional chess, the game was won as he slowly contemplated his first move while his opponent stuffed his pieces into his own mouth and choked to death.