Government shutdown blame will fall largely on Trump and the Republicans, despite the Dreamers

Donald Trump’s weekend has been ruined, and if there is one good thing about the shutdown currently blighting the U.S. government, it is that. He was supposed to spend his Saturday night in his Mar-a-Lago resort, celebrating with wealthy donors and friends the anniversary of him taking office. Instead, thanks to the shutdown, he is stuck in Washington trying to be the great deal-maker that he claimed to be throughout his campaign. The fact that this extended weekend of work is likely to have come as a surprise to The Donald makes this even better.

Understandably, wanting to avoid being blamed completely for a shutdown, something that he tweeted Barack Obama should have been fired for when it happened in 2013, Trump went on the attack, pointing the blame at Chuck Schumer and the Democrats. He tweeted that Democrats were prioritising “illegal immigrants” over American children and the military, and pushed for more Republicans to be elected in 2018 to stop things like this happening again. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, in a suitably Trumpian White House statement, said that “lawful citizens” were being held hostage by the Democrats, acting in the interest of “unlawful immigrants.” But, according to Politico, despite Trump’s attacks, he knew what was coming, reportedly saying to an aide: “They’re going to blame me anyway.”

Well, according to polls and the media, Trump’s assertion is both correct and incorrect, depending on the questions asked and the circumstances of the shutdown. John Cassidy reported in the New Yorker that a CNN poll took before the shutdown said that Trump and the G.O.P. would be held responsible for a shutdown by 47% of its respondents. The Democrats by contrast would only be held responsible by 31% of those who answered the survey. But the same CNN survey said that 56% of its respondents said that preventing a shutdown was a bigger priority than getting a deal for the Dreamers – children of illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally, but without a choice. 34% of respondents said the opposite.

The Washington Post also reported that a super PAC allied with the Democrats commissioned a poll in 12 key states, and found that in the more conservative of those, the blame for a government shutdown would largely be split between Trump and the Republicans, and the Democrats. But if a government shutdown was tied to the Dreamers, and whether a deal could be struck to secure their status in the country, the Democrats took more of the blame.

The Republicans clearly realised this too, as their messaging the last couple of days has been to blame the Democrats for effectively refusing to help the government function because of the Dreamers. Attached to this is the message that by doing this the Democrats are stopping the funding of CHIP – a child health insurance program – because the Republicans attached a six year funding extension of this to the budget that attempted to keep the government running.

Using this as a key message is disingenuous at best, lying at its worst. Tim Dickinson, writing in Rolling Stone, points out that Republicans have been refusing to fund CHIP since September. So, it clearly was attempted leverage by the Republicans: they knew that if the Democrats voted against the budget it would look like they were voting against children’s health insurance.

But the Democrats have hit back with messages of their own – pointing out primarily that this is the first time in history that a government has shut down while a single party controls the Senate, the House of Representatives, and has the sitting President. It makes Trump’s argument that more Republicans need to be elected in 2018 to stop shutdowns look weak – the budget does need 60 votes to pass in the Senate, and there aren’t 60 Republicans sitting in the Senate – but once you are reduced to arguing semantics, you’ve lost the argument, and Trump doesn’t do semantics.

There’s also the charge levelled at Trump largely by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer: that when a deal is near the President backs off after pressure from more conservative Republicans and aides. Indeed, Schumer met Trump on Friday over hamburgers, and hashed out a deal that would keep the government open. The Democrats would concede more funding for security on the Mexican border, in return for permanent status for the Dreamers. But, instead of pushing his party to accept the deal, Trump hedged to his base, and hours after the meeting Schumer received a call from Trump’s chief of staff John Kelly, who said the deal worked out had been “too liberal.” Trump’s ever-changing status on the Dreamers is what has set the government on course for a shutdown, and negotiations seem to stall (or explode as in the case of the shithole remarks last week) when they get anywhere near a deal.

So Trump’s assertion that they (whoever they are) will blame him anyway is beginning to look more accurate. The Republicans cannot hold a vote together – four of their Senators voted against the budget – and their own politicians are openly criticising the government. John Neely Kennedy, a Republican out of Louisiana, said “This country was founded by geniuses, it’s being run by idiots.”

But Trump, aside from fighting to brand this shutdown as the Democrat’s political mess, spent his weekend not frantically working, but, according to a White House aide talking to the New York Times, he spent it watching old television clips of himself attacking Barack Obama in 2013 for a lack of leadership during the last government shutdown. The beautiful irony of Trump watching himself criticise his predecessor for a lack of leadership, when he himself spends a crisis watching television, will be lost on him. Instead of leadership, Trump prefers to sit and remember the glory days, when he was a maverick, anti-politician, and when a government shutting down wasn’t his mess.

Photo Credit: Al Drago/Bloomberg

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