Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.
As British politics sinks further into a self-enforced abyss of disagreement with no end in sight, it is worth remembering that we are not alone in navigating choppy waters.
The US Government is in its third week of a partial shutdown that it brought entirely on itself.
The shutdown is now entering day 27, and crucially there is little indication of a cooling of tensions that could provide a light at the end of the tunnel. Its implications are octopus-like, reaching simultaneously into complex areas of public policy and people’s everyday lives.
Hundreds of thousands of federal employees are either being furloughed or working without pay, bringing pain to households in commuter towns in Washington, Maryland, and Virginia. Around the country, a lack of airport security personnel means screening takes hours when it should take minutes (scarily, in three weeks, Atlanta airport is expecting over 100,00 passengers coming into town for the Super Bowl).
The longest government shutdown in history shows no sign of ending any time soon. Americans employed by the government and tourists hoping to visit national parks are losing out at the sharp end of the shutdown – but does its continuation in fact suit both parties?
Playing the blame game
Both the White House and Congressional Democrats have been keen to continually lament the shutdown, scathing about its impact on Main Street American jobs and the macroeconomic impact. The longer the shutdown goes on, the more both sides are proven correct – yesterday the New York Times wrote:
“The partial government shutdown is inflicting far greater damage on the United States economy than previously estimated, the White House acknowledged on Tuesday, as President Trump’s economists doubled projections of how much economic growth is being lost each week the standoff with Democrats continues.”
For the President, this brings a significant risk. Donald Trump has prided his tenure so far on the economic impacts he has delivered – a bullish stock market and wholesale tax reform for companies and individuals. Tumbling economic forecasts suddenly undermine that narrative, which will be one of the central features of his 2020 re-election campaign.
It represents a likely battle taking place between the economic and immigration advisers in the President’s inner circle. After all, the shutdown is only entering its 26th day because of the White House’s insistence that fiscal provisions to keep the Government open contain over $5 billion in government funding to build a wall on the US/Mexico border.
With absolutely no surprise whatsoever, Democrats are refusing to acquiesce – immigration became one of their top priorities as an increasingly diverse electorate become ever more important to their electoral coalition. In previous congressional cycles, the focus had been on securing a long-term solution for the so-called “dreamers”, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration policy. Notable attempts failed under President Obama in 2014. Since Trump made chants of “BUILD! THE! WALL!” a central feature of his election campaigns, that focus has sharply shifted to the issue of the wall.
So, who is to blame? The President has sought to shift blame towards the Democrats, whom he continues to describe as “obstructionist”. Following a televised address to the nation last week, three polls showed that strategy is failing to land:
- A Quinnipiac University poll (here) found that 56 per cent of voters held Trump and congressional Republicans responsible for the shutdown whereas only 36 per cent said they thought congressional Democrats were responsible.
- A CNN/SSRS poll (here) found that 55 per cent of Americans blamed the President for the shutdown, compared to 32 per cent who blamed the Democrats. Interestingly, the poll also found that a majority (56 per cent) opposed the deal whilst only 39 per cent supported it.
- A CBS News/YouGov poll (here) found that 47 per cent of Americans blamed Mr Trump “most” for the shutdown, compared to 30 per cent who cited Democrats. However, 20 per cent allocated blame “equally” on both parties, suggesting neither is gaining as a result of the current malaise. Worryingly for the GOP, these criticisms are held acutely amongst suburban voters – whose votes will be crucial for Republicans in states like Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Virginia in 2020.
Immigration shaping up to be the biggest wedge issue in 2020
As we enter the lame duck period, so much of what happens in US politics will be viewed through the lens of the 2020 general election. The proof? Since Christmas, three Democrats have launched their early campaigns for the presidency and a fourth appears imminent. On the left, the pressure from the grass roots will be to hold an aggressive line in staunch opposition to the wall. There will be absolutely no political reward whatsoever for riding to the rescue of a President that has buried himself in a bunker. And so:
- Elizabeth Warren, who was the first to launch her campaign for 2020, has tweeted: “24 days into the #TrumpShutdown and over 800,000 federal employees have already missed 1 paycheck. How many more before Republicans stop crushing working families and re-open the government? Time to end this.”
- Tulsi Gabbard has tweeted: “Today an estimated 800,000 federal employees will miss their first paychecks of the year. Families are suffering. Our country is less safe. The impact of this shutdown is real.”
- Kirsten Gilibrand has tweeted: “The emergency at our border is the cruel treatment of children who are still detained. It’s the asylum seekers being shut out. It’s @realDonaldTrump’s dehumanizing attacks on immigrants in need. We need to end the shutdown and get back to solving real problems families face.”
For the President, the strategy of keeping the government shut down unless Democrats vote to fund his border wall doesn’t seem to be working. According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, since the shutdown began the president’s aggregate approval rating has fallen from 42.2 per cent to 40.8 per cent.
No end in sight
The 2018 midterm elections saw the Republicans and Democrats trade on the currency of anger and fear in the American public. Those two sentiments have continued into the 116th Congress and there is no sign it will end any time soon. For that reason, it is hard to forecast a sudden change in sentiment from the White House or Congressional Democrats, one of which would be needed to bring about an end to the shutdown.
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