Stop Whining, Move Forward

It’s amazing how quickly conventional wisdom can congeal. It’s even more amazing when it plays to Democrats’ habit of garment-rending and self-flagellation. This morning I read this in the lede of The Washington Post‘s Daily 202.

Seven takeaways from the failed Democratic government shutdown: The Resistance will struggle when it tries to replicate the tactics of the tea party movement. The left learned with its failed shutdown gambit that it cannot beat President Trump by copying the same playbook that the right used against Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Good Lord, people.

A number of author James Hohmann’s takeaways have merit. The fact that Democrats believe in government and have constituencies who depend on it, both as federal employees and beneficiaries, makes the dynamics of the shutdown waiting game inherently different and more difficult for Democrats. This is certainly a disappointment. Democrats have essentially agreed to punt and come back to the same challenge in three weeks. Democratic self-flagellation gives President Trump an opening for bragging and chortling. None of that is fun.

But the takeaway here is wrong. I don’t think it’s right to see this as Democrats trying to replicate the Tea Party playbook. They could try that. Many Democrats would like to see them try it. But they actually haven’t. The particular dynamics of the Senate mean that Republicans require 60 votes for some budgetary legislation. (The only reason they needed it in this case was because they wanted to pass their tax cut with 50 votes.) But look at the alternative. If your takeaway here is that Democrats were trying to shut down the government what you’re really saying is that Democrats must vote yes on any continuing resolution no matter what is contained in it. That is obviously an untenable position. What we’re losing sight of here is that, yes, Republicans control the entire federal government. This amounted to legislative hostage taking in reverse.

Look at the big picture.

Democrats are in the same position they were a week ago. Listen to people talking this morning and you would think that Democrats surrendered their leverage and a major point of policy and suffered a damaging political blow. Neither is true. Trump’s high-fiving Stephen Miller and talking shit on Twitter doesn’t really matter as anything more than a head game. It’s conventional bully tactics. It doesn’t move votes. It only has an impact to the extent you bring to the table an internal drama about Democratic ‘toughness’ and forget that being in the minority is hard.

Democrats have a bite at this same apple in three weeks. In practice they really haven’t given up anything. They will have the same leverage and, critically, face the same decisions in three weeks as they did over this weekend. The big news here is Democrats playing to their same pattern of reflexive self-flagellation, which generally sets one faction against another to no purpose. For those who watch politics constantly and are consumed by internal dramas and squabbles about Democratic ‘toughness’ and bad strategy, this is either a deflating defeat or a confirmation of pre-existing intra-party critiques. Democrats lost. Democrats weak, Trump strong!

The reality is that very few people whose opinions of things are not set in stone are even paying attention to the optics of this. The policy question – settling the Dreamers issue – is very important. But that remains to be decided as much as it was before. Get up, dust yourself off and realize that this is a skirmish in a larger political battle which will come to a head again in three short weeks.

What to think about all this? Think that Democrats are fighting for key policy priorities with virtually no power. That’s not easy. It won’t be accomplished in a day. That’s an honorable position not a shameful one.

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