Who is losing the battle over the government shutdown?
President Trump is the biggest loser.
When we ask questions about political battles in Washington, there are a couple of things to consider (after deciding that it holds significance for people other than elites and DC insiders). First, we (or at least I, a public opinion nerd) want to know how the average American is reacting to the event. For this we typically rely on public opinion polling. We also want to read into the broader institutional consequences of different actions by different actors, deriving insights from our theory-based understanding of US politics. In the current battle over the government shutdown, both of these approaches bode poorly for Donald Trump.
Let’s start off with the numbers, shall we? There have been a few polls released over the last week that show more voters blaming Trump for the lapse in federal funds than Democrats or Republicans. First up, a poll from YouGov/The Economist
found that 46% of Americans say that Trump bears the most blame for the shutdown, 35% believe Democrats are most to blame and 6% think Congressional Republicans are at most fault. This roughly matches the toplines from a Reuters/Ipsos
poll (47% blame Trump and 33% blame Democrats) and a Morning Consult poll (43% Trump, 31% Democrats), both taken at the onset of the shutdown.
The Morning Consult poll also showed Trump’s approval dipping down to 39%, and the FiveThirtyEight average of his numbers has slipped from 42 to 41%.
So does this mean that Trump is turning voters against him with the shutdown? Not necessarily. In the YouGov polling, 78% of voters who approve of Trump’s job performance blame Congressional Democrats for the budget impasse, and 84% of Trump disapprovers blame him for it. In other words, if you think Trump is doing a good job in office, you’re very likely to think he’s not at fault for the shutdown, and vice versa if you don’t like him. Partisan groupthink, right?
Apart from the polling topline, then — that about 15% more Americans blame Trump or Republicans for the shutdown than Democrats — what else can we say? Let’s talk about power.
There is a traditional argument in US politics that the president’s strength comes from the power to persuade others and accomplish his goals: “The power of the president is the power to persuade,” Richard Neustadt wrote in his seminal 1960 book Presidential Power
. The Georgetown political scientist Matt Glassman frequently discusses why Trump fails this test, qualifying as a weak president. He wrote
this week that Trump threatening to use emergency executive powers to build the wall — something he can probably do
, by the way — is essentially a concession that any attempts to persuade congressional Rs or Ds to his side has failed.
Since the President can do very little to effect durable, long-standing public policy without buy-in from Congress, Trump’s inability to win the shutdown fight — even after pulling out all of his media stops
— is a big sign of weakness, and also shows why he is losing the fight over wall funding and the shutdown. (A note: this is by no means the end-all be-all take on Trump’s power in office. There’s a lot more to be said here and an entire section of political science devoted to studying how the president interacts with the legislature. However, I’ll leave the discussion here for now, as it’s suitable as an initial read on the situation.)
In other words, Trump is both losing the public opinion battle on the wall/shutdown and the political/institutional/powers battle over it. The only question is who makes concessions over the next week/few weeks to bring the funding impasse to a close.
One short, tangential thought:
Trump’s relentless demand for $5B in wall funding is also demonstrative of something simple, yet important. He is banking on his base for reelection in 2020. He seems not to have performed a deep autopsy (or any autopsy at all) after his party’s losses in the House this past November: if they show anything, it’s that his base is not substantial enough to build a coalition nationwide. There is obviously some chance that a coalition based upon non-college whites can overwhelm minorities and educated voters in 2020, but the most recent evidence we have points to this being harder more hard than easy. Trump should not be doubling down on support from ~40% of voters right now; the way to another term is by expanding his coalition to disengaged degree-holders, hispanics, and moderate Democrats, possibly by bargaining with Nancy Pelosi on policies such as infrastructure, health care (especially pharmaceutical price negotiation), and campaign finance reform. In sum, deal-making is Trump’s best shot at reelection. Shutting down the government over a border wall will likely not get him all the way there.