No Substance to the Shutdown Fight

My son asked me who should be blamed for the government shutdown: President Trump or the Democrats? There are many ways to answer that question, and each way offers an insight.

Most importantly, the American people need to step back and realize that the fight is entirely symbolic. Both sides are claiming that building the wall will fundamentally change the country for the better/worse. One Democratic senator said, “What we don’t want to do is waste taxpayer money on a vanity project that’s ineffective.” Trump claims it is essential to stop a national emergency, which even he thankfully began walking back when the most ardent congressional supporters expressed via back-channel that such a declaration was a precedent they will never allow. So we are stuck in the midst of a feud about a border wall that, for the most part, already exists.

But who is to BLAME? Clearly both sides are to blame. Dems like to say the President is throwing a temper tantrum. Maybe. You could just as easily see his position as a principled stand, especially because it exposes Dem hypocrisy that they would never support a border wall which many Democrats — such as Barack Obama and Bill Clinton and current legislators — have explicitly called for and voted for before.

The fairest answer to the blame question is that Trump is to blame in the short term but Democrats are to blame in the long term. There’s no denying that this is Trump’s shutdown, and it doesn’t help R’s to hedge on that reality. But there’s no denying the bigger picture that Democrats have sabotaged immigration legislation for over a decade.  It’s all pretense. It’s a game of symbolism for political advantage. Think I am wrong? Then I would challenge you to show me what the compromise position is that Nancy Pelosi is offering? Doug Schoen is 100% right that both sides need to compromise, but the key word is “both.” Does anyone think Trump wouldn’t accept something big that Dems want so long as he gets the wall?

Let’s put the $5.7 border funding request in context. Five billion is small, almost but not quite one tenth of one percent of the annual U.S. federal budget. According to a government source, the feds spent $4.11 trillion in 2018.  The OMB reported 2017 outlays of $50.5 billion for the Department of Homeland Security, $111.7 billion for the Education Department, $1.0008 trillion for Social Security, and $41.3 billion for the Labor Department, just to name a few major categories. So the standoff for Trump’s signature issue – a one-time outlay of $5 billion – is a tenth of the annual DHS budget, or a hundredth of what DHS will spend in the coming decade.

What is the Democrats’ compromise offer? Will they accept a DACA fix in exchange for $5b wall funding?  Will they accept increasing refugee allowances to 100,000 legal immigrants per year along with $2.5b of partial wall funding? Trump gets nothing is not a compromise. It’s a willful effort to humiliate him, to win politically at all costs.

If your instinct is that Trump is losing public support, you are half right. Democrats are losing support, too, according to a CBS poll.


If only negative opinion mattered to the Speaker in absolute terms. Instead, politics is a zero-sum game. So as long as Nancy Pelosi is blamed relatively less than the President, she may interpret the damage to the country as a win for the Democratic Party.

So in the end, who does Dad think is really to blame? Maybe the correct answer is that American democracy has become a serious quagmire. In other words, if you spend your time trying to blame one side or the other, you are probably contributing to the real problem which is a breakdown in civility. The shutdown fight is less about immigration policy than it is about the increasing inability of US institutions to reach compromise.

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