Suffering federal workers should never be a bargaining chip for the president.
The government shutdown has stretched into its third week with no end in sight. Both sides continue to be deadlocked on the question of a border wall. President Trump has angered many of his critics by threatening to declare a national emergency in order to subvert Congress’s will. Some commentators have argued that such an act would be illegal, since Trump would be unable to prove to a federal judge that a border crisis did exist. Even some Republicans, such as Andrew Napolitano, have warned against this action on constitutional grounds.
The question of resolving the shutdown has intensified as reports continue to describe the effects of the shutdown on the families of federal workers. Recent stories have highlighted workers who could not afford Christmas presents, local businesses that have lost revenue, and federal contractors who may not even receive back pay after the shutdown has ended. New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz interprets these accounts as potentially ruinous for the Democratic position. To Levitz, Trump has shown that “he sees his own insensitivity to human suffering as a vital source of leverage over Democrats.” Democrats will face a considerable amount of pressure to restore food stamps, save devastated national parks, and alleviate the financial hardship of federal workers. As Levitz writes, “How much concrete suffering should one tolerate for the sake of upholding a righteous principle?”
The suffering of government workers presents a challenge for Democrats: should they give in to Trump’s demands to save their constituents and act like the responsible party? Or should they avoid caving at any cost?
Levitz’s argument is based on the inaccurate assumption that Trump is an iron-willed politician. According to Levitz, Trump’s demand is firm, and he is committed to using the pain and suffering of American workers to guilt the Democratic Party into giving in. This assumption is off-base given the many, many campaign promises that Trump has broken in the past two years. Just this week, Trump showed his malleable nature on the question of American troops in Syria. He recently ordered all troops out of Syria within thirty days, but after weeks of criticism and pressure from senators such as Lindsey Graham, the president began to backpedal. Now, the prospect of any troop withdrawal from Syria seems unclear. Recent news reports suggested that American troops may instead stay until ISIS is defeated and there are guarantees that Syrian Kurdish fighters will not be attacked, a process that could take years. As Slate’s Fred Kaplan argues, the troop withdrawal and reversal came not from a clear policy but from “random eruptions of Trump’s id and instinct, shaped by some confidant’s comment during moments of mounting frustration, or blithe self-confidence, when he is ripe for influence.”
Pundits also err when they assume that Republicans’ natural aversion to government means that they will always support a shutdown and will thus refuse to override his veto of a spending bill. In fact, political considerations have often led Republicans to make deals to keep the government open. Political shutdowns have often led to a backlash against congressional Republicans. Shutting down the government, as opposed to spending or tax cuts that can be explained by an appeal to efficiency, is simply not popular and not easily supported. As a result, there was not a single shutdown during the George W. Bush administration, and one of the shutdowns that did occur after Bush was connected not to the party establishment but to one aggrieved senator (Ted Cruz). Ideology did not push Republicans to cut the social safety net, balance the 2018 budget, or shut down the government to win massive spending cuts from Democrats in 2007 or 2008. Those actions would have been unpopular and led to an erosion of support. If Republicans believe that the current shutdown harms their political fortunes more than it helps them, they will not remain as supportive as they have been until now.
Democrats have the leverage, the support of the public, and a group of opponents who could crumble at any moment. They need to overcome their reputation for fecklessness and to remove guilt and suffering as bargaining chips in Trump’s playbook. The shutdown has already become the #Trumpshutdown. Democrats need to appear flexible to the public but stick to their positions. No matter the bellowing from the president and the worries of compassionate pundits, Democrats still have a chance at victory.