Five Shutdown Lessons

On January 19th the federal government shut down.  Two days later, Democratic leaders blinked and called off the shutdown.  Even though Dems didn’t get what they wanted, there were important lessons learned.

The brief shutdown accomplished two things.  First, Democrats finally secured an extension to the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) that benefits 9 million children in low-income families.  Second, the Senate effort to resolve the shutdown was led by a bipartisan group of 24 Senators; this suggests that, when the Senate votes on immigration, there may be enough moderate Republicans to ensure that the resulting bill is reasonable.

Nonetheless, on January 22nd Senate Democrats didn’t get what they wanted and lost the first major DACA battle.  There are five lessons to be earned from this experience.

1. It’s not sufficient to be right.  Democrats were right to shut down the government in defense of the 690,000 DACA recipients.

On September 5th, Trump precipitated the crisis by ending the DACA program and not providing a way for the Democrats to negotiate safe status for the existing DACA recipients.  On January 9th, Trump promised that he would soon sign a “clean” DACA bill.  However, on January 12th, when presented with a bipartisan compromise, Trump reneged on his promise.

Given this background, Democrats thought they had no choice but to shut down the government.   in response, Republicans effectively framed the shutdown as a national security threat: “Democrats are  holding American troops and Customs and Border Patrol agents hostage to benefit illegal immigrants.”  Trump’s base, and uninformed independents, swallowed the GOP message.  That reality could have had consequences in the midterm elections.  (The Washington Post reported that in critical swing states such as Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, voters “were getting Republican robo-calls saying Democrats had prioritized illegal immigrants over American citizens.”)

Democrats were right to defend DACA recipients but lost the messaging battle and, therefore, had to retreat.  (Nonetheless, an NBC news poll indicated that 56 percent blamed the shutdown on Trump or Republicans.)

2. Democrats have to control the message.  Trump has a communication advantage because he occupies the White House and, therefore, has ready access to the media.  The White House framed the shutdown as a national security issue: “Democrats are  holding American troops and Customs and Border Patrol agents hostage to benefit illegal immigrants.”  Democrats responded with “It’s Trump’s fault.”.

Democrats should have framed the shutdown as “protecting defenseless children… Republicans want to abandon children who were promised citizenship.”  This fits into a larger frame of abandonment: “Republicans want to abandon America’s women and children by… cutting off their healthcare, polluting their water, etcetera.”

3. Democrats have to determine who their messenger is.  During the actual shutdown, Republicans managed to keep Trump “under wraps” — except for a few tweets — and let Senate Majority leader McConnell and House Speaker Ryan represent the Party.

Congressional Democrats were led by Chuck Schumer, Senate Minority Leader, and Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader.  They didn’t do a good job during the shutdown.

Schumer alternated TV appearances with several white male Senators: Dick Durbin (assistant Democratic Leader, Chris Van Hollen (Chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee), and Bernie Sanders (former presidential candidate and an Independent).  Given that, at the moment, there is a resurgent women’s movement, it seems like a good idea to have a female Democratic Senator represent the party on the DACA issue.  A logical candidate is Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez-Masto, whose father was of Mexican descent.

The Democratic messaging should have been delivered by Cortez-Masto surrounded by actual DACA recipients.

4. Trump’s base is willing to overlook his failings.   In conflict situations, such as the shutdown, Democrats act as if it is sufficient to blame Donald Trump.  It isn’t.

Trump voters have long since developed the capacity to look past Trump’s personal failings — most can’t stand his Tweets — and focus on his accomplishments.  Trump supporters tout the health of the economy (the booming stock market) and national security.  They’ve compartmentalized so they can ignore his lying, racism, and general incompetence.

5. Democrats must go on the offensive. A recent poll indicated that while an overwhelming majority of Americans support the DACA recipients, they don’t want to see the crisis resolved by a governmental shutdown. Furthermore, the lesson of the last 10 shutdowns is that shutting down the government is not an effective way to accomplish policy objectives that have not been achieved through the normal legislative process.

A better tactic than a shutdown would be a swap for something that Trump wants.  Senator Schumer tried this by offering Trump funding for his wall in return for his support for DACA recipient amnesty. (While Trump initially rejected this offer, he now says he will provide DACA amnesty in return for $25 billion to build the southern wall and many additional restrictions on immigration (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/25/us/politics/trump-immigration-plan-white-house.html?).)

Some Democrats have suggested swapping defense and domestic expenditures in exchange for DACA amnesty.  (Sequestration spending cuts are scheduled to kick in in March.)  Other see tying DACA to the $81 billion in disaster funding passed by the House but pending in the Senate.

Even though Dems didn’t get what they wanted from the shutdown, there were important lessons learned.  The next shutdown may occur on February 8th; perhaps by then Democrats will have learned how to negotiate with the Republicans.