Discover more from The Bulwark
Shutdown Politics: What Trump Wants, Who Gets Blamed
Plus: The weakness of Kevin McCarthy, and the bellwether election to watch.
THE IMPENDING GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN is déjà vu all over again—not only because Republicans are yet again stopping federal government operations, but also because Donald Trump is once more wreaking havoc on the country to serve his own interests.
He did it catastrophically after the 2020 election, culminating in the insurrection of January 6th. He’s doing it again with the shutdown.
On September 20, Trump egged on his MAGA House acolytes with a Truth Social post: “Republicans in Congress can and must defund all aspects” of the government.
He makes no effort to hide his self-serving motivation. A shutdown, he wrote, is “the last chance to defund these political prosecutions against me.”
He wants a shutdown to stop government preparations for his pending trial in Washington, D.C. on charges relating to his attempt to overturn the election. His reasoning seems to be that a shutdown could result in a delay of the trial’s scheduled start date, and that any delay helps him.
After all, the further that the trial is pushed into the 2024 election season—it’s currently scheduled to begin on March 4, 2024, the day before the Super Tuesday primaries—the likelier that he can depict the trial as a political persecution.
And if he could push its scheduling to the fall, the Justice Department policy of “sensitivity” to taking actions close to the time of an election might get the trial postponed until after November. That would be his ideal outcome, so that if he wins the 2024 general election, he could take the oath of office and instantly kill any federal effort to prosecute him.
SO, AS EVER, TRUMP’S STRATEGY is delay, delay, delay. And he doesn’t mind taking the economy down with him.
But he should careful what he wishes for. We may have a government freeze that voters remember a year from now. He and Republicans will get the blame.
There are some major Trump misfires that independent voters have shown they won’t easily forget. Surveys make clear that independents continue to take the January 6th insurrection seriously, strongly approve of the Trump indictment, and do not believe the prosecution of Trump is politically motivated.
And independents have also repeatedly shown—both in how they have voted and in survey data—that they disapprove of the direction Republicans have been taking abortion policy following the Dobbs decision handed down by the Supreme Court with Trump’s three justices.
Could a shutdown be added to that list of memorable marks against Trump?
The big shutdown he caused in late 2018 and early 2019—the longest in U.S. history—didn’t have any notable effect on his standing. But Trump did end up caving after his empty threats to keep it going until Congress appropriated $5 billion to build his wall.
Trump “folded after 35 days, having exacted absolutely nothing,” as Jake Sherman rightly notes—but he also paid little political price for his intransigence.
GIVEN HOW HOUSE SPEAKER KEVIN MCCARTHY keeps surrendering to the small group of hard-liners in his party, a shutdown seems almost inevitable now. And even if, by some miracle, the House passes a continuing resolution to keep the government going temporarily, it will almost surely include massive spending cuts that would be dead on arrival in the Senate.
Shutdowns tend to backfire against their instigators. Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) encapsulated the history last week: “Name one time that we’ve shut the government down and we haven’t got the blame.”
On Saturday, Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) agreed: “Historically, Republicans have been blamed. . . . So whether you look at it through a policy or a political lens, a shutdown is never beneficial.”
Republicans who hail from districts that Biden won in 2020 are among those most concerned about the political fallout. As one of them, Rep. Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.), told reporters last week, House Freedom Caucus members “don’t know how to take yes for an answer—it’s a clown show.”
TWO IN THREE AMERICANS say a shutdown is a bad idea, per a Navigator Research poll last month. It’s easy to see why.
According to a Goldman Sachs analysis, a month-long shutdown like the last one would cost the economy approximately 1 percent of growth, throwing Americans’ financial lives into uncertainty.
To see the political effect, watch the bellwether November election for the Virginia legislature, on which Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin has staked much of his political future.
Some 150,000 Virginians work for the federal government, and they will stop being paid. In addition, as observed by Josh Thomas, a Democrat running for a seat in the House of Delegates, many other Virginians own small businesses that serve federal workers. Their financial well-being is also on the line.
And as Don Scott, the Democratic leader in Virginia’s House of Delegates, told the Messenger, “I have many friends that work in the defense industry” whose “mortgages will be impacted, their childcare will be impacted, their very lives will be impacted if the government shuts down.”
After the shutdown in 2013, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe and other Democrats on the ballot “all won their races . . . , buoyed by their shutdown-focused closing argument.”
If history repeats, it could be an ominous harbinger for Trump 2024.