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Two things came into very clear focus over the past 96 hours:
1) Republicans are losing the messaging war surrounding this longest government shutdown ever — and losing it badly
2) With every passing day, President Donald Trump hunkers down deeper into his demand for $5 billion in federal funding to build a border wall with Mexico.
Those two realities are creating a slow-motion disaster for Republicans, the vast majority of whom — OK, everyone but Donald Trump — are powerless to do absolutely anything about it.
Let’s break it down — point by point.
A series of national polls conducted and released over the past week leave no doubt that a majority of the public blames Trump and Republicans for the ongoing shutdown. In a CNN poll out over the weekend, 55% blamed Trump for the shutdown while 32% said it was congressional Democrats at fault. (A majority — 56% — opposed the construction of a wall along the entirety of the southern US border with Mexico.) In a Washington Post-ABC News poll from this weekend, the results were very similar; 53% said the shutdown blame falls primarily on Trump and Republicans while 29% blamed Democrats in Congress. There’s plenty more recent polling that gets at that same idea: People blame Trump and Republicans for this shutdown and believe the cause of the shutdown — a border wall — won’t solve the problems posed by immigration.
And yet, in the face of this avalanche of polling data — remember when Trump couldn’t wait to tout the results of the latest poll in the 2016 GOP primary?? — Trump seems entirely unable or unwilling to bend. “He’s not going to budge even 1 inch,” a source familiar with Trump’s thinking told CNN’s Jeremy Diamond on Monday. (That same source told Diamond that Trump keeps citing increased support for a border wall — 42% support for it in the WaPo-ABC poll — as evidence he is winning. Of course, 54% of people in that same poll oppose the wall, so …)
Trump’s tweets of late seem similarly detached from reality.
“Nancy and Cryin’ Chuck can end the Shutdown in 15 minutes,” he typed Monday morning. “At this point it has become their, and the Democrats, fault!”
This is all sorts of bad if you are a Republican elected official.
What we know from modern political history is that the public tends to blame one party for these shutdowns — unless they are of a very short duration. This one is not that. We also know that, barring some sort of major news event that upends conventional wisdom, once people make their minds up about who they think is at fault in government, they rarely change their collective minds.
If you are a congressional Republican, the feeling is somewhere between utter frustration and total futility. You know that every day this shutdown goes, things get worse for your party, politically speaking, You also know that telling Trump any of this makes him more likely to hunker down even further. And don’t forget, you are a little — or more than a little — scared of the President’s ire, and what it may mean for your political future.
What do do? Well, most Republicans have largely thrown up their hands. Take Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the man who, during past potential (and realized) shutdowns during the Obama administration, stepped in to cut a deal. He’s been largely on the sidelines in this shutdown — by his own choosing.
“Ultimately the solution to this is a deal between the president and Nancy and Chuck, because we need some of Chuck’s votes, and obviously, we need Nancy’s support,” McConnell told Politico recently.
He’s also made clear that unless and until Trump goes public with a specific legislative proposal, there’s no point in having a series of show votes on the Senate floor for measures the President won’t sign. (Left unsaid but without question a calculation for McConnell is putting his vulnerable 2020 members on the record with votes that will never go anywhere.)
The truth here is that congressional Republicans threw their lot in with Trump — totally and completely — shortly after he won the White House. They did so because they thought doing so would get them what they wanted — tax cuts, conservative Supreme Court justices — even if it meant swallowing their pride and their past views on things like the danger posed by the rapidly growing national debt.
When they latched themselves to Trump, they did so for good and for bad. This moment — a flailing President unwilling to see he made a bad bet and who keeps throwing good political money after bad — was completely predictable. That doesn’t make it any easier for congressional Republicans to endure; the President is lighting their political brand on fire while insisting everything is not only fine but that he is, in fact winning.
Which, well, he isn’t.