As the partial government shutdown stretches into its second month, a new Fox News poll finds that 51 percent of respondents blame the president, 34 percent blame the Democrats, 9 percent say everyone involved is to blame. And only 3 percent blame the Republicans. To put this in perspective, the margin of error in the poll is 3 percent.
It’s understandable why so many blame the president. He said he would own the shutdown if the Democrats refused to pay for it. On Dec. 11, the president proclaimed in an Oval Office meeting with then-incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, “I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck. … I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it.”
Since then, the president has changed his tune, blaming the Democrats, in part because they’ve rejected several possible compromises as non-starters. Pelosi says that the wall is an “immorality” and the most she’d agree to spend on it would be one dollar.
Given the contours of the fight between the White House and the Democrats, it’s easy to see why each side gets a good deal of blame from partisans. At the end of 2018, there was a Schumer-backed proposal to fund the government with $1.6 billion for “border security,” which included fencing or walls.
And many Democrats supported walls or fences on the border in the past. In 2006, then-Sens. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Schumer and 22 other Democrats voted for the Secure Fence Act, which mandated 700 miles of double fencing along parts of the southern border. Later, President Obama boasted about how much of that fencing was built on his watch.
To be fair, many Democrats say the real issue is that they don’t want to cave to what they call the “hostage-taking” tactic of using a shutdown as leverage. But that doesn’t negate the hypocrisy of suddenly claiming that building border barriers — something the Obama administration did — is suddenly immoral.
But, again, the remarkable thing is not that Trump and the Democrats are being blamed, it’s that the Republicans are getting off scot-free.
As Commentary magazine’s Noah Rothman explained for NBC’s Think site, the congressional GOP deserves its share of the blame for getting us to this impasse. When the Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress, they routinely punted on the issue of wall funding.
“We have to deal with (Hurricane) Harvey, we have the debt ceiling, we have a continuing resolution, which will be just about a three-month continuing resolution,” then-Senate Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said in September 2017. “So you will deal with the wall a little later in the year.”
Then, with the midterm elections looming, Republicans kicked the can again.
“Republican leaders are more focused on urging Trump to delay a fight for the wall than on fighting for it themselves,” the Washington Post reported in September 2018. “Congress is working to pass a short-term spending bill that would avert a government shutdown Oct. 1 and punt a showdown over wall funding into December, after the November midterms.”
And the current shutdown was precipitated in large part because the Republican Freedom Caucus wouldn’t accept anything less than Trump’s request for $5.7 billion in funding.
There’s also the fact that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has opted to back the president’s play (despite opposing a shutdown in the first place) by refusing to consider any bills the president won’t sign.
Of course, what all of this leaves out is the fact that the reason Republicans punted on the wall is that the wall is not very popular, even among Republicans. As The New York Times’ Nate Cohn recently noted, voters have steadily opposed it by a 20 point margin in national polls. “That makes it even less popular than the president himself.”
But by constantly playing lip service to the president’s cherished policy goal while doing nothing, it was inevitable that he would get fed up with the delays and force a confrontation. At the very least, the congressional GOP deserves a larger portion of the blame, and their insistence that this is only a crisis now that they’re not in charge should be added to the hypocrisy list alongside the Democrats sudden moral horror of walls.
Jonah Goldberg is an editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by email at JonahsColumn@aol.com.