Bet on a Government Shutdown

The odds of a government shut-down at the end of the fiscal year (midnight on September 30) are extremely high. A shutdown is all political upside for the President, mostly political and policy upside for the Democrats, and a mixed bag for Republicans in Congress.

On Tuesday the Republican President announced he would shut down the government if Congress does not fund The Wall that he promised Mexico would pay for (and that he later said wasn’t that big a deal and for which he didn’t even seek funding). Given the political incentives, this could either have been a raw appeal to his base and/or a shrewd way to turn a likely shutdown into a political advantage by getting ahead of the messaging. Either way, it increases the already good chances of a shutdown.

The politics of a shutdown are on balance good for Trump. If he can continue to attack Republican leaders with no repercussions, he can: do something much of his base likely wants him to do (even as most Americans think shutdowns are needless and foolish politics); join America in blaming Congress for all of America’s ills; drive down Majority Leader McConnell’s numbers even further thereby increasing Trump’s leverage; drive down public support for Democrats for failing to get behind anything meaningful or useful; and reinforce his own position as being above or other-than politics. America’s highest ranking Republican politician is doing a good job of blaming politicians and Republicans for all that is wrong with politics and Republicans. Until Republicans in Congress, at the Republican National Committee, and elsewhere call the President out for playing them likedime store ukuleles this will continue.

Republicans in the House and Senate are in a bind, and when Congress is in a bind it tends not to move. On one hand, they are afraid of Trump voters and they support many of Trump’s policies, therefore they have incentives to do what Trump wants. On the other hand, enough Republicans think the wall is a daft idea and a waste of time and money. Some may also not want to vote for this threat for the same reason you don’t give a crying kid candy in the checkout line at the grocery store — if he knows screaming works, he will scream more. Republicans also know they will own any debt limit fiascowhich will hit at around the same time as the shutdown. Defaulting on the federal debt would be a major economic blow to the country and therefore a major political blow to the party in power. Finally, some (especially in the Senate) may be loath to hand a political victory to a White House that continues to attack leading Senators. In a game of “que es mas macho?” the Senate almost always wins.

Preventing a shutdown and/or raising the debt limit probably means dealing with Democrats, but…

In addition to policies Democrats will never support (building a wall, gutting Medicare, etc.), Democrats have little political incentive to help Republicans. A shutdown hurts public opinion of Congress, and an ebbtide sinks all boats; Democrats have no reason to help Republican dinghies float a bit longer or higher than Democratic ones. Even if Democrats get blamed, if history is a guide there will be no repercussions at the polls — the public blamed Republicans for the 2013 shutdown and Republicans picked up seatsin the 2014 elections (there was obviously a lot more going on in 2014 just as there will be in 2018, the point is that the 2018 electoral consequences of actions in 2017 may not be a big deal).

If I were a Republican I would do all I could to distance Trump from the Republican Party, demand to deal with Vice President Pence, and go about the business of governing.

 

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