Chuck Schumer started a government shutdown he couldn’t finish.
The New York Democrat, among the shrewdest operators in national politics, stumbled badly because he succumbed to the siren song of the anti-Trump resistance. He believed that any charge could be made to stick to President Donald Trump, no matter how implausible, and chose the dictates of an inflamed Democratic base over common sense.
His embarrassing climbdown after a short, mostly weekend shutdown shows the limits of the resistance. Yes, an anti-Trump midterm wave appears to be building, and Democratic activists — marching in the streets by the tens of thousands and badgering Republicans at town hall meetings — are energized. But this doesn’t mean that Democrats can act with impunity so long as they are fighting under an anti-Trump banner.
Schumer sought to attach an extraneous matter, an amnesty for so-called Dreamers, on a must-pass government funding bill and, when Democrats inevitably didn’t get what they wanted, blame President Trump for the ensuing government shutdown. This effort depended on gravity-defying spin that proved sustainable for less than three days.
The fact is that the Republican House handily passed a bill to keep the government open, with the support of the Republican president. Almost every Republican in the Senate voted to pass that bill through the upper chamber — where it required a supermajority of 60 and therefore some Democratic votes — while almost every Democrat in the Senate opposed it. Republican leaders said they didn’t want a shutdown and urged Democrats not to force one.
It was always going to be true that people, even reporters, were going to notice all this.
The press wasn’t hostile to the Democrats over the shutdown, but it wasn’t uniformly compliant, either. The left objected to a headline on a New York Times news alert right after the shutdown vote on Friday night: “Senate Democrats blocked passage of a stopgap spending bill to the keep the government open.” It’s not clear how a remotely honest news writer could have described it any other way.
If the media couldn’t be counted to be on board, neither could everyone in the party. In what is a persistent temptation for Democrats, Schumer forgot that the rest of the country doesn’t regard Trump with the deep disdain and abiding alarm of the coasts and the major metropolitan areas. The party still has senators in red states that the president won handily who can’t afford to indulge in anti-Trump flights of fancy. Five of them defected on the initial shutdown vote, and more would have broken with Schumer if the shutdown had endured.
When Schumer was forced to buckle, it outraged a base that believes Trump needs to be resisted on all fronts and chased from office as soon as possible, and considers anything less the work of quislings.
Nancy Pelosi didn’t back the deal to reopen the government, and the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus said of Senate Democrats: “They are getting their butts kicked.” The co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee pronounced it a “cave.” The political director of CREDO, a progressive advocacy group, called Schumer “the worst negotiator in Washington.”
He’s not the worst negotiator, but he acted in flagrant disregard of the first and most important rule for winning a government shutdown — don’t be the one to shut down the government — and paid a price.
It’s only a tactical defeat, and perhaps a temporary one. In exchange for Democratic votes for a temporary funding measure, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promised to hold votes in coming weeks on DACA and other immigration measures. There’s still a good chance that Democrats can force a bad DACA deal, given that the GOP is divided on immigration and President Trump might be tempted to sign up for anything as long as there’s notional funding for a wall.
So, Schumer lives to fight another day, but can only do it shrewdly if he’s more realistic than the resistance.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: email@example.com.