the national interest

Trump Caves on Shutdown, Is Terrible at Politics

Bad president, no wall for you. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

President Trump’s painful delusion that he could use a government shutdown to force Democrats to fund his campaign theme came to a predictable yet bizarre conclusion. Trump strode to the podium in front of the White House like a conquering hero. “My fellow Americans,” he announced, “I am very proud to announce today that we have reached a deal to end the shutdown and reopen the federal government!”

Trump declared this in the soaring tones of a conquering hero, as if he were announcing the safe return home of hostages from Iran, rather than the release of hostages he had taken himself. He thanked the federal workforce and absurdly insisted they “did not complain.”

The part of the speech where Trump had to paper over the fact that he had received nothing in return for the shutdown was couched in hilariously obtuse bureaucratese. He announced that “a bipartisan conference committee of House and Senate lawmakers and leaders will immediately begin reviewing the requests of our homeland security experts … they will put together a homeland security package for me to shortly sign into law.” To put this more simply, Congress will immediately … continue debating border-security policy options. Or put it even more simply than that, Congress isn’t going to pay for the wall any more than Mexico is.

After that, he delivered a long, rambling, off-script fantasy about women bound by duct tape being transported over the border, probably designed to create a dramatic narrative distraction from the deflating reality that he had won nothing more than a promise by Congress to listen to his staffers’ budget requests.

Nobody has ever gained anything from a government shutdown. Trump nonetheless decided to try, egged on by a sycophantic right-wing media that pushed him into a tactic he could never win, and then denied the obvious. The shutdown “is highly unlikely to hurt either President Trump or the Republican Party,” argued Henry Olsen in December. “There’s no reason he shouldn’t dig in for the holiday season and wait for the Democrats to offer a compromise he can live with.” Amazingly, Olsen’s column did not contemplate what would happen if Democrats refused to offer up a concession and simply waited for the inevitable backlash to force Trump to relent.

Likewise, last week, Rush Limbaugh cheerfully insisted, “If he hangs on and continues down this road, at some point there’s gonna be a shift in public opinion and the vast majority of the American people are gonna end up with him on this.”

That, uh, did not happen. Instead, Trump’s approval rating sank below the 40% level in poll after poll, and he had to surrender before the economic chaos threw the economy into recession.

The mystery of Trump’s bad-but-not-bad-enough approval ratings has spooked liberals ever since his surprising election victory. The shutdown debacle provides some hint as to what might be in store for his public standing if the economic recovery he inherited comes to an end. He has been held up by polarization, a party-controlled media apparatus, and kept aloft by the peace and prosperity he was bequeathed.

In every other respect, Trump is absolutely horrible at politics. His policies are unpopular. He can’t make deals with Congress because he understands too little of the policy substance and can’t be bothered to learn. He surrounds himself with unqualified staffers and listens to the worst advice presented to him. The shutdown was a self-inflicted wound whose outcome was utterly predictable.

Trump Caves on Shutdown, Is Terrible at Politics