Analysis

How Trump could emerge the political loser over government shutdown

While no party will likely emerge as a significant political winner from the U.S. partial government shutdown, President Donald Trump could stand to lose the most.

The partial shutdown stops funding for about a quarter of federal government programs

U.S. President Donald Trump has requested around $5.7 billion US to fund a so-called wall along border between the U.S. and Mexico. Proponents believe it would keep out illegal immigrants out of the United States. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

While no party will likely emerge as a significant political winner from the U.S. partial government shutdown, President Donald Trump may stand to lose the most, some experts say.

"Whoever owns the shutdown loses," said political historian David Eisenbach. "When Trump claimed ownership, that was an unusual thing to do."

"The symbolism of a government shutdown never works in favour of the party or the side that initiated it."

The partial shutdown, which stops funding for about a quarter of federal government programs, entered its sixth day on Thursday, with no deal expected any time soon.

The sticking point is over funding for border security. Trump has requested around $5.7 billion US, money that he wants to spend on building a wall along the border between the United States and Mexico. Proponents say it will keep illegal immigrants out of the U.S.

The Democrats have countered with $1.3 billion US for border security and oppose the creation of a border wall.

'Proud' to shut down government

In a public meeting two weeks ago with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Trump said he would be "proud to shut down the government for border security" and that he would "take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down."

But Eisenbach suggested Trump has made a political miscalculation. His base may be committed to this idea, but many Americans — including the former Barack Obama voters who voted for him in 2016 — are more focused on issues like the economy.

"The voters that he needs, the voters that decide elections are not ideologically committed to a wall," he said.

The partial shutdown, which stops funding for about a quarter of federal government programs, entered its sixth day on Thursday, with no deal expected any time soon. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

As the deadline for a government shutdown approached, Trump appeared ready to strike a deal on funding for border security. But he changed his mind after some of his more vocal supporters slammed him, accusing the president of reneging on one of his core promises to build a wall.

"I think he's pandering to those loud voices. But it's a small number. They're not the ones who are going to be responsible for his re-election," Eisenbach said.

According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll in late November, less than a third of those surveyed (31 per cent) said improved border security should be among the top three priorities for Congress.

"I thought it was a politically bad move on his part because because he's over-interpreting the significance of that wall," Eisenbach said.

Bill Schneider, a professor of policy, government and international affairs at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., said he doesn't believe either political party will come through this showdown looking like a winner. 

The Democrats mistakenly assume that the public overwhelmingly views the partial shutdown as a crisis even though it doesn't affect that many Americans in relative terms, he said. Essential services including Social Security, Medicare and the military continue to be funded, he said.

President 'didn't do his job'

Still, the political ramifications will be bad for the president overall, Schneider said.

"Whenever a president allows the government not to function, it means he isn't doing his job," he said.

"I think if anyone is hurt he will be hurt," he said. "It isn't a crisis but maybe the lingering effect of this for the next two years will be the president didn't do his job."

The longest federal government shutdown lasting 21 days, occurred in December 1995 and January 1996, triggered by conflicts between President Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans over Medicare funding and government spending. Clinton is widely viewed as having won the political battle and was re-elected in 1996.

In 2013, the government shut down for 16 days after Republicans demanded to strip funding for Obama's signature health-care legislation or delay its implementation. Republicans suffered in public opinion polls.

Backfire on Democrats

But Marc Thiessen, former speech writer for George W. Bush and a resident fellow with the American Enterprise Institute conservative think-tank, offered a different take.He believes that if Trump is viewed to have been willing to compromise, it's the Democrats who could suffer.

In a public meeting two weeks ago with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Trump said he would be 'proud to shut down the government for border security.' (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney has said the White House presented Schumer a counter-offer over the weekend. Mulvaney, who is also the budget director, said the offer was somewhere between Trump's $5.7-billion US request and $1.3 billion US Democrats have offered.

"If [Trump's] the one that's compromising and the Democrats are demanding absolute surrender, then it's gonna backfire on them because that's not what the American people want," Thiessen told Fox News.

"If he can be responsible and keep making concrete offers that are concessions to the Democrats — then over time, they will start to own the mantle of the shutdown."

Meanwhile, Republican strategist Evan Siegfried said in an email to CBC News that a sizeable portion of Americans that haven't paid as close attention to how the shutdown occurred. 

"They are more likely to see this as a problem with D.C. as a whole. To them, this is further proof that Washington is dysfunctional no matter who is in charge," he said.

About the Author

Mark Gollom

Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from Reuters and The Associated Press

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