31 December 2018

Why The Government Shutdown Is Not About The Wall

As 2018 came to a close, President Trump and the Democrats in Congress remained locked in an impasse over whether to allocate $5 Billion in funding for Trump's border wall along the southern border with Mexico. With both sides dug in, multiple agencies are as of this writing effectively shut down because Donald Trump will veto any funding bill that does not also provide for the wall.

At least, that is what the popular narrative proclaims. I am unconvinced. In this battle the border wall is little more than a MacGuffin. It is merely a focal point for the animosity between the Democrats and the President--if the wall were not an issue there would be another of similarly existential significance. This shutdown has happened because the Democrats have categorically refused to work with Donald Trump on pretty much anything--and they certainly are not about to support a signature Trump campaign pledge.

This is where the Democrats have made a major tactical mistake. Their rhetoric is all about the wall--whether the wall will work, whether there are better uses for the public fisc, whether Trump has been efficient in the wall funding already granted. What they do not acknowledge is that a sizable portion of the American electorate wants the wall, period. By and large, Donald Trump's supporters are fully on board with shutting the government down in order to secure border wall funding; 63 million people--all those who voted for Donald Trump, want the wall that badly. Whether it works as they anticipate is, for now, not the issue. This is what they want, and this is what they elected Donald Trump to secure. The border wall was a signature campaign promise if not the campaign promise.

The irony of campaign promises is that no candidate--not for President and not for Congress--has the power in and of themselves to keep those promises. Campaign promises require both President and Congress to work together to pass legislation. Donald Trump was never going to secure the border wall funding on his own; he was always going to require the cooperation of Democrats in both houses of Congress. Yet when Democrats in Congress are so utterly opposed to Donald Trump they refuse to even concede that he is the President, cooperation has been the one thing they will not (dare not?) give him. For the Democrats, his campaign promises matter not at all.

In a representative democracy, such as the United States, however, they should matter.  When 46.1% of the electorate says they want something by voting for someone who has promised to obtain it above all else, the government is expected to take notice.  Trump voters might not have voted for Democratic congressmen in 2016 or 2018, but the Congress is still obliged to address their concerns, speak to their issues, redress their grievances. When the Preamble to the Constitution decrees one purpose of our foundational governing document is to "promote the general Welfare", it obligates the organs of government, including the Congress, to heed the expressed desires of the electorate.

46.1% of the electorate want a border wall built. 46.1% of the electorate want the government to build that wall. 46.1% of the electorate are being told by the Democrats that their desire is of no consequence, in flagrant disregard of what the Constitution demands of them.

The voters understand this all too well. There is a reason why Donald Trump's Favorable/Unfavorable poll numbers are significantly above Nancy Pelosi's and even more so above Chuck Shumer's. Whatever flaws Donald Trump may have as a President and as a politician, for the moment he has the high ground of actually striving to make good on a promise. For the moment, the voters are content to shut down a government that does not heed their expressed desire, to shut it down and leave it shut down.

Which is why Donald Trump is under no pressure to reopen the government. Which is also why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been unusually disengaged during this shutdown. They are doing the will of the people, and the Democrats are not, and that means the pressure is on the Democrats to break this impasse, not the Republicans and not Donald Trump.  Whatever favorability hit Donald Trump takes over this shutdown, the Democrats have already taken larger hits and very likely will continue to do so.

Until the Democrats can speak credibly to the reality of what American voters expect from the federal government, they will continue to be on the defensive on this issue. Until the Democrats can acknowledge the real substance of this shutdown is not border wall funding, but the willingness of Congress to execute the will of the American voters, there will be little impetus to reopen the government.

As a consequence, barring a significant change in circumstances, the Democrats will have little choice but to give Donald Trump and the American voters funding for the border wall.

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