My concern was that once the shutdown began, it would be difficult to end it just as it is difficult to prevent a needless bloodbath once blood begins to spill. What most of the public—including most of my former colleagues in government service—don’t seem to understand is that this shutdown is unlike all those that have gone before…
The Cynical ….
Just before Christmas, as the prospect of the federal government shutdown loomed, I warned my daughter, who is a young American diplomat, that if the government did close down it would not be like any of the past shutdowns, including the 21-day closure in 1995-1996. My concern at that time, since confirmed, was that once the shutdown began, it would be difficult to end it just as it is difficult to prevent a needless bloodbath once blood begins to spill. What most of the public—including most of my former colleagues in government service—don’t seem to understand is that this shutdown is unlike all those that have gone before. What fundamentally distinguishes this shutdown from all the others is that both sides view this conflict as an existential struggle. Neither side can back down easily without losing credibility with their base and both sides refuse, thus far, to consider sensible compromises that would allow them both to declare victory and restart the government. For President Trump to give in now, after the shutdown has begun, would be to dramatically lessen his chances for re-election in 2020. And perhaps even more difficult for him: backing down now would make him seem weak to his most important audience: himself. For very much the same reasons, the Democrats understand the severe consequences to their future electoral prospects if they were now to cave in. Waiting for the other side to blink is the best strategy politically for both sides, though it is the worst strategy for our country and our government employees.
Further exacerbating prospects for reaching a practical compromise is the fact that much larger egos pervade the arena this time around and a much deeper distrust infuses the sentiments of the combatants. While there was little affection or even admiration between former President Clinton and former Speaker Newt Gingrich, their dislike for each other fell far short of outright disdain. Similarly, while they both had exceptionally large egos, their first priority was to survive another day and they were naturally inclined to think and act like typical politicians. This is not at all the current situation. Current Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi loathes President Trump and that sentiment is heartily reciprocated by Mr. Trump toward Ms. Pelosi. Moreover, Ms. Pelosi, having just won a difficult campaign to become the Speaker, needs to prove to all the young upstarts aligned to her left that she can stand up to the president, even if that means the government and its employees must suffer.
…Manipulating the Misinformed…
It is painfully amusing to hear the vast majority of my former colleagues place all the blame for this impasse on President Trump. These colleagues are for the most part exceptionally bright and insightful people, who are readily able to see through the machinations of foreign governments and the deceptions of foreign political leaders everywhere. Often they are shocked at how the people of other countries are so easily duped and manipulated. Yet when it comes to domestic politics, they are as easily duped and led astray as any herd of cattle. Mr. Trump certainly deserves a good deal of blame (or credit) for the shutdown, but to reflexively assume that the Democrats are concerned about the welfare of the federal workforce is risible. Unquestionably, Mr. Trump believes that getting his wall built is more important than getting those 800,000 federal workers paid, but it is equally clear—to anyone who wants to open their eyes—that the Democrats believe not building that wall is also more important than ensuring that those 800,000 federal workers get paid. And certainly, both the Democrats and the Republicans think it a far higher priority to bash the other side than to reach a sensible compromise to the benefit not just of the federal workers, but of all Americans.
The cost of the wall—an edifice whose efficacy is questionable—is little more than a rounding error in our colossal multi-trillion-dollar deficit. Both political parties happily squander far greater sums on their other pet projects and pork barrels. The only reason for Democrats to not give the funding is to deny President Trump a victory—regardless of all the self-righteous nonsense about the wall’s supposed immorality. In other words, winning at politics is more important than safeguarding the paychecks of the federal workforce. (As the shutdown continues, of course, other concerns may well transcend worries about the federal workforce. The suspending of various welfare programs, for example, will start to cause serious economic pain for thousands of poor Americans.) In terms of political gamesmanship, this Democratic desire to put President Trump in his place is completely understandable. What isn’t understandable at all is how easily they have fooled otherwise sensible people into thinking that they care about them. Many of my former colleagues were outraged by President Trump’s tweet: “Do the Dems realize that most of the people not getting paid are Democrats?” This was proof positive, in their analysis, that Mr. Trump is not a president for all the American people. They never stop to consider that the Democrats essentially are taking the same stance; they are just smart enough not to say it in the stark terms used by Mr. Trump. When Ms. Pelosi, in referring to President Trump, cleverly says, “Maybe he thinks it’s OK not to pay people who work. I don’t,” she is being as disingenuous and deceitful as her adversary. Obviously, the Democrats prioritize not funding the wall over getting the federal workforce paid. In other words, Democrats do think it is OK not to pay the people who work if not paying them helps prevents the wall from being funded.
…Summarizes Much of History
There is an unspoken catch to the widely held belief that Democrats represent a large majority of the federal workforce. On the one hand, it suggests that President Trump will remain impervious to the complaints of this constituency since federal workers are not a group that will vote for him anyway. While on the other hand, since the vast majority of the federal workforce blames Mr. Trump for the shutdown, there is no incentive for the Democrats in Congress to compromise either. Ironically, if the workforce were to start blaming the Democrats as much as the Republicans for the shutdown, there would be a greater impetus for reaching a workable compromise, but that is very unlikely to ever happen. As it now stands, barring some terrible tragedy caused by the shutdown, there is no reason for either side to prioritize the welfare of the government workers.
What would a workable compromise look like? Actually, there are two. The small compromise: Simply split the difference and fund an amount somewhere between the 5.7 billion dollars President Trump is currently demanding and the 1.3 billion dollars the Democrats are currently willing to allow for border security, and add a few additional items the other side desires. This would resolve the shutdown controversy, but would just be kicking the can down the road yet again in resolving larger immigration issues. What is really needed is a grand compromise, which would give the American people what they say they want. A significant majority of Americans support a solution that should please most liberals and conservatives: a clear pathway to citizenship for DACA applicants and the continuation of the temporary status protection (TSP) program, as well as improved border security and reasonable reductions in chain migration. But for now, neither compromise seems viable.
Nero’s legendary fiddling while Rome burned pales before the farce being played out by President Trump and Speaker Pelosi, each vying to show his or her concern for the federal worker and the future of our country. At least the Romans were wise enough to grow disenchanted with their ruler, and they were miraculously lucky enough to have Vespasian waiting in the wings. We must hope for something even more miraculous: that both the Democrats and the Republicans will grow up and do their jobs.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a panorama of the Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C. taken by Joe Ravi, licensed under Creative Commons 4.0.