The other day, I asked a House Democratic member who has been in D.C. for a few years, if he thought that Democrats would find themselves battling their own 'Tea Party' insurgency. Would the forces led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez soon be in open-warfare against leadership? He told me he wasn’t worried. First, he said, Speaker Pelosi’s skill as a leader and strategist were exemplary, far and above anything that former GOP Speakers John Boehner or Paul Ryan possessed. But, more important, he said, was Trump himself. Serving as a check on the president is the glue that keeps the Democratic caucus together.
The battle over the wall and the ensuing government shutdown has put that ‘unifying’ factor into stark relief. First, all the polling released in the last week shows that Trump, not Democrats are taking the blame for the shutdown. Moreover, Democratic voters are more united in the sentiment that it’s Trump fault than Republicans are united that the blame should fall on Democrats.
Trump’s decision to center the debate solely on the construction of a wall (or fence or barrier or steel slats), has also has helped to consolidate Democrats. By now, Republicans had warned us in numerous ads over the 2018 campaign, Democrats would be hosting anti-ICE protests and defending sanctuary cities. The 'open borders' liberals would be forcing suburban, swing seat members to choose between their moderate constituents and their liberal allies in Congress. But, what’s keeping the Democratic caucus from splitting in two (or three, or four) is that debate isn’t about immigration anymore. It’s about a wall. And, even his own base isn’t convinced that a wall is worth it.
A Pew Research Poll (Jan. 9-14) found that most Republicans, 76 percent, approve of the way Trump is handling the shutdown including 50 percent who strongly approve. But, that doesn’t match the intensity of disapproval by Democrats: 93 percent of Democrats disapprove of Trump’s handling of this shutdown situation, including 87 percent who disapprove strongly! Not surprisingly, how you feel about the president colors one’s opinion of who should take the blame for the shutdown. Among those who disapprove of the president, 88 percent put the blame on him. Those who approve of Trump as president blame Democrats. But, it’s not universal. About three-quarters (77 percent) of Trump approvers blame Democrats for the mess of the shutdown, but almost a quarter (23 percent) blame the president.
Democrats are also more united against a compromise on the border wall than Republicans are united in support for it.
The Pew poll asked respondents how willing they’d be to compromise on a solution to the shutdown deal. About two-thirds of Republicans who support a border wall said that a compromise to reopen the government that doesn’t include wall funding would be unacceptable. But, among Democrats who oppose the wall, 84 percent say that a compromise that includes wall funding would be unacceptable.
By this point, it’s pretty clear that the president and the GOP are in a very deep hole. The wall hasn’t become more popular. The majority of the public blames the shutdown on Trump. A CNN poll found that just 66 percent of Republicans agree that building the wall will help solve the crisis on the border — not exactly a ringing endorsement. But, what should worry Trump the most - and could be more problematic in the long run - was this finding in the Quinnipiac poll: When asked who they trusted more on border security, Democrats in Congress were ahead of Trump by 5 points (49 to 44 percent). In other words, not only is Trump losing the argument on the wall and the shutdown, but he’s also losing on the issue of safety and security. That’s losing the battle AND losing the war.
Did the shutdown fight hurt Trump’s standing on border security? This is a bit of an apples to oranges comparison, but in a pre-election poll by Washington Post (Oct. 29-Nov. 1), voters said they trusted the Republican party to handle border security more than the Democratic party by 10 points (49 percent to 39 percent).
If there were any sort of White House ''strategy;" on the shutdown (and yes, I use strategy loosely), it seemed to be based on three assumptions:
- The wall — Trump’s central campaign promise — would unite and animate the Trump/GOP base
- Democrats would be divided — potentially even upending Nancy Pelosi’s ascension to Speaker
- Trump would be sure-footed on his favorite, and more politically favorable, turf of immigration and security, while Democrats would fumble and stumble.
But, here we are almost a month later, and the polling data — and subjective data as well — suggest that all three of those assumptions have failed to come true. Not a great sign for any other big battles the White House plans to engage in for the next year.