Democrats cave. Activists erupt. Here's why they're wrong.

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. Lindsey Graham and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. (Yahoo News photo Illustration; photos: AP, Getty)

“The government shutdown is not a good way to get an outcome legislatively,” Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator, told his Democratic colleagues earlier this week. Which is true, I guess, in the same way that jumping from the roof of a burning building is not a good way to escape the flames. It helps if you can give people some better options.

Even so, after making their point and then folding, Democratic leaders in the Senate seem to have resolved not to venture out on that particular ledge again, opening a deep rift in what had been a unified opposition. The party’s liberal base, including leaders in the House, opposed caving so easily on a promise from Mitch McConnell to vote on immigration reform, and they’re furious at Senate Democrats for accepting a compromise.

Apparently this is supposed to be the new normal in Washington, with one faction or another bringing the entire government to an existential crisis every couple of years, because being a minority in Congress now means having to paralyze the system in order to be heard, and because whenever one party manages to excavate one level deeper into the unexplored depths of our political destruction, the other feels duty bound to reciprocate.

The truth is that Senate Democrats, far from cowering to Republicans, showed unusual courage in defying the angriest voices in their own party. Unfair as this may seem to frustrated liberals, political tactics work out differently for different parties, depending on their core arguments. And just because your adversary got away with political terrorism doesn’t mean you can, too.

It’s not that I’m unsympathetic to what Democrats were trying to do here. Even sensible Republicans in Congress agree that the White House’s extremist line on immigration — specifically when it comes to undocumented residents who were brought here as children — lacks both policy sense and compassion.

As principles go, this seems like a pretty good one on which to stake your party’s future — if only the means of doing that didn’t undermine your entire reason for being.

Here’s what I mean: at bottom, modern Republicans don’t believe there’s value in most of what the federal government does. It’s an argument they’ve been honing now, to considerable effect, for more than 40 years. Their ambivalence toward soaring public debt — at least when they’re the ones racking it up — derives from an extreme theory that eventually government will no longer be able to sustain itself, and then much of what it does will just have to go away.

So when rogue Republicans shut down the government in 2013, it was entirely consistent with their overarching argument. We think the government spends too much to achieve too little, and we’re happy to derail it if that’s what it takes. You have to admire the simplicity of that, if not the heedless nihilism.

Their agenda was only helped by the fact that their shutdown, short-lived as it was, didn’t seem to affect much anyway. See? We induced Washington into a coma, and no one even noticed.

For Democrats, though, the calculus ought to be pretty much the exact opposite. Democrats hold themselves out, after all, as the party of governance. Their argument, time and again, is that what you get for your taxes is indispensable to a just and orderly society, and that Americans can have faith in government to operate efficiently and for the better.

So when you shut down the government, and the sun still comes up, and nobody loses any benefits right away, and nobody’s schools close, and nobody has to cancel their trips to Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, and agencies keep spending the money they already had budgeted, and life in America seems to carry on pretty much as it did before while the TVs talk about the Armageddon that’s certain to ensue … well, whose point does that actually seem to validate?

And how is anyone supposed to be persuaded that the federal government actually isn’t a dysfunctional mess when your agenda is literally to stop it from functioning?

Oh sure, eventually, if the standoff went on for weeks or months, and the military ran out of cash and the Social Security checks and IRS refunds stopped rolling, it would all get very ugly very fast. We do, in fact, need a government, and we ought to pay for it. But the shutdown never gets to that point, because neither side — and certainly not the Democrats — will let that happen.

What happens, instead, with these temporary shutdowns, is that Washington declares itself closed for business, and for the vast majority of people who aren’t part of the federal workforce, absolutely nothing changes. The world doesn’t end, or even teeter on its axis.

The so-called shutdown is, for all practical purposes, illusory, which probably leaves a lot of Americans feeling even less reliant on government than they already did.

OK, my activist friends say: So what are Democrats supposed to do then? They don’t control the congressional agenda, and our dealmaker president seems to lack the negotiating skills necessary to buy a car, much less hammer out federal policy. Are they supposed to just throw up their hands and let cruelty reign?

No. They’re supposed to win elections. This is how democracy works. First you persuade the public to give you a larger say in Congress, if not outright control, and then you get to govern.

And Senate Democrats are right to worry that another shutdown might get in the way of that goal. Up to now, absent this shutdown business, Democrats have been looking at a midterm election cycle so promising that even Vladimir Putin couldn’t find a way to rig it.

The accepted rule among political strategists has always been that the party in power should brace for midterm losses if the president’s approval rating dips below 50 percent. According to the latest polls, Trump is closer to 35 percent, and if last November’s off-year election in Virginia was any indication, a large segment of the Republican base will have trouble even getting off the couch to vote.

But the longer this standoff looms, the more likely it is that the midterms will become all about immigration. And here the math isn’t nearly so favorable for Democrats, who champion immigration generally but rarely talk about the legitimate anxieties arising from porous borders.

According to a CNN poll last week, which I would not expect to be an outlier, 56 percent of voters think a budget agreement is more important than preserving protections of the undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers. Only 34 percent said the opposite was true. So while most Americans agree with Democrats on the issue, they don’t think it’s worth crippling the system.

In other words, however unpopular Trump may be, immigration continues to be the issue on which he gets not only the most fervor from his supporters, but also the most sympathy among Americans generally.

So Democrats had a choice to make here. They can allow themselves to become vessels for the fury in their own base, or they can focus on making November a referendum on Trump. It seems to me Chuck Schumer made the smarter call.

Because his colleague Lindsey Graham is right: Shutdowns are a lousy way to extract legislation. You know what’s better?

Actually getting to legislate.

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