Let’s be honest. The immediate responsibility for shutting down the government is the Democrats’. The overwhelming majority of congressional Democrats on Thursday and Friday voted against funding the government; the overwhelming majority of Republicans, in favor. Of course, the Democrats didn’t make that choice without reason: they had decent motives, which were mainly to utilize the leverage of a government shutdown to get protection for the hundreds of thousands of Dreamers in danger of deportation because of Donald Trump’s trashing of the DACA program. A bipartisan compromise that had good chances of averting the current crisis was killed by Trump, after he first said he would support it.
So, if you want to ask whose fault it is that the government has shut down, that’s a bit different from asking who is most directly responsible. Assigning blame or fault is a matter of values and perspective. You can reasonably argue that the shutdown is Trump’s fault, for his hateful war on immigrants and his unreliability; and the congressional Republicans’, for having ignored earlier Democratic pleas for a legislative solution for DACA. And there is good reason to doubt that the Republicans, without some real compulsion, would take the necessary action before the DACA expiration commences in March. Arguably, the Democrats needed to use whatever leverage there was available to them in order to prevent large-scale human suffering.
But honesty does really require that we acknowledge that it is the Democrats who have chosen to shut the government down. They have chosen to pursue an admirable humanitarian objective through dubious means. That makes me uneasy. First, on principle: I have been saying for a long time that the Republican Party bears overwhelming responsibility for the dysfunction in Washington, because it is the GOP that has repeatedly disdained the norms that keep American political conflict manageable–by consistently abusing the arcane anti-majoritarian rules of the Senate, by threatening to blow up the US and world economies by refusing to raise the debt limit, etc. etc. The “etcs” include threatening to shut the government down, and acting on that threat. Now the Democrats are playing the same game, thus forfeiting some of the moral high ground that they held.
I’m also uneasy because the Democrats’ strategy is politically risky. Right now, the polls seem to indicate that voters are blaming Trump and/or the Republicans more than the Democrats for the current mess. But that could change. If it does, the Dems might be hurting themselves for the 2018 midterm elections, and that would be a shame. A blue tide this coming November is essential to the fight against Trumpism.
I understand the basic argument that if the Republicans do it, we have to do it too: unilateral disarmament is only for losers. But back when the shoe was on the other foot both Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer* basically said that there are some things that you just don’t do—you don’t threaten chaos if you can’t get your way. I think that in the long run a firm and consistent stand on that principle would be better for American democracy and better for the Democrats. But we are where we are, and I’m just hoping for the best.
* Here’s Schumer in 2013: “You know, we could do the same thing on immigration. We believe strongly in immigration reform. We could say, ‘we’re shutting down the government, we’re not gonna raise the debt ceiling, until you pass immigration reform.’ It would be governmental chaos.”