Republicans are already working to lose the next government shutdown.
On NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy denied that President Donald Trump had shut down the government. The shutdown that started Dec. 22 and lasted until last Friday was, he said, the decision of the Democrats’ Senate leader, Charles Schumer of New York.
The same morning, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney was asked on CBS’s “Face the Nation” whether the president is “really prepared to shut down the government again in three weeks,” when funding for some of its operations runs out. Mulvaney’s response? “Yeah. I think he actually is.”
Shutdowns typically result in failure for the party that is blamed for starting them, and the party that gets blamed is typically the one that is seeking to use legislation that keeps the government funded to enact a policy change. The odds were therefore against Trump’s hope that the latest shutdown would end with new funding for a wall, or even increased physical barriers, on the Mexican border.
The odds would have been against Republicans even if they had made a sustained and consistent case that they were trying to keep the government open but were being thwarted by stubborn Democrats who refused to give them an inch of fencing. But the Republicans did not make that effort. Instead they made three errors that reduced their chances of success still further.
First: They engaged in no political preparation for the shutdown. The White House in December put out the word that Trump would sign a government-funding bill without extra money for the wall, and then close to the last minute the president decided to insist on that money. Second: Some of them actively and preemptively took responsibility for the shutdown. Trump famously told Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that he would take the heat for the shutdown. Third: They continued to broadcast dueling messages throughout the shutdown. (It was no problem for most Americans, and it was a tragedy caused by the Democrats.)
Almost everyone agrees that Trump and the Republicans lost the political battle over the shutdown. Trump agreed to fund the government for another three weeks with no added border security. All he seems to have gotten is slightly worse polling numbers (based on the RealClear Politics average).
Amazingly, Republicans are making the exact same mistakes now, even as Trump threatened on Sunday to close the government again to get his wall. They are not preparing for the possibility of another shutdown in a few weeks. The conventional wisdom, which many of them are promoting, is that this fight is over. They are not trying to avoid blame for another shutdown, as Mulvaney’s comment shows. And they are not getting on the same page, as McCarthy and Mulvaney just demonstrated.
Republicans aren’t preparing for another shutdown because they don’t want to believe one is possible. Congressional Republicans generally think it won’t happen because it would be crazy for Trump to precipitate it. But that’s what they thought last time, too.
Republicans in Congress can take two steps to avert a shutdown. One is to reach a deal on border issues with their Democratic counterparts before government funding runs out, and sell the president on it. The other is to communicate to Trump that if he tries to use another shutdown to get his way, enough of them will vote with the Democrats to keep the government open that any veto would be overridden.
They’re not going to take that second step, no matter how many pundits tell them to do it, because they’re not willing to deliver on the threat. They don’t want another shutdown, but they want a bitter party split even less. And that’s what breaking with Trump on a shutdown would be: a declaration that congressional Republicans will work with congressional Democrats to sideline Trump. The president would — understandably! — respond by lashing out at Republican traitors. Republicans have no intention of entering the 2020 election cycle that way.
So while Republicans in Congress and the Trump administration do not want another shutdown, and have every reason to expect another shutdown would end no better for them than the last one did, they have effectively resigned themselves to the fact that whether there will be one and what role they will play in it depends on the whims of the president. This is not the place they want to be, but at least it is a familiar one.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.