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How Will The Shutdown End?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.


sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): In his first prime-time address to the nation, President Trump told Americans on Tuesday night that the flow of illegal immigrants and drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border was a crisis. He did not declare a national emergency to secure funding for his proposed border wall, but he did suggest that he wouldn’t end the partial government shutdown until funding for the wall was approved.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer made it clear in their rebuttal that congressional Democrats were not prepared to give Trump what he’s asking for. Congressional leaders from both parties are scheduled to meet with Trump today, but at this stage, it doesn’t seem as though the government will reopen anytime soon.

So, I’m curious, where do we go from here? We seem to be at an impasse. And the stakes are such that neither party can back down. Is that accurate? What would happen if one party compromised? And Is there a way out of the shutdown that doesn’t require either party to compromise?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Can we start by talking about the television theater of the absurd on Tuesday night?

I thought it was a wildly useless exercise by both the president and the congressional leaders.

It was like a public declaration of impasse.

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): I agree, Clare. In general, research has shown that Oval Office speeches and the like don’t really change minds. Reportedly, even Trump was skeptical that the speech would make a difference!

sarahf: It certainly was a departure from how previous presidents have used an address from the Oval Office. But it wasn’t clear to me who exactly Trump was trying to reach?

clare.malone: The public nature of it did, as you say, up the stakes for backing down. And maybe that was the point from Trump’s/the White House’s end?

It almost felt like he was just trying to remind everyone in America that there’s a shutdown and that the White House and Congress are having a slap fight.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): It felt like Trump was making a kind of Hail Mary. A majority of the public (51 percent) think the president deserves most of the blame for the partial shutdown, according to a Reuters-Ipsos poll that was released Tuesday. But some Republican senators are balking at Trump’s strategy. That said, an address from the Oval Office is a card he can play that no one else can. But, yes, it was unlikely to work — presidential addresses don’t generally change minds, as Nathaniel noted. Plus, opinions on immigration are pretty entrenched, and Trump is fairly unpopular.

clare.malone: One thing that struck me was how much Trump’s speech echoed both his inaugural address (“American carnage”) and his campaign announcement back in 2015.

He talked about rapists and murderers, but from the Oval Office. It was fascinating from a historical perspective, I guess. The usurpation of a formula, that formula being the dignified, seemingly apolitical Oval Office address.

perry: This take from Vox’s Dara Lind hits on that theme, too. The headline of her piece is: “‘Immigrants are coming over the border to kill you’ is the only speech Trump knows how to give.”

sarahf: There’s this idea floating around that one purpose of last night’s address was to convince Americans that there is a crisis at its southern border. How could we measure if Trump succeeded in convincing Americans that was true?

perry: I tend to be skeptical of the kind of insider, access-based reporting through which we learned that Trump didn’t want to give the speech. Yes, I’m sure Trump said this, but it’s not like someone made him give the address. He is the president.

clare.malone: It was definitely meant to bring the crisis to Americans’ living rooms. But it seems like a move that doesn’t come from a position of strength. It feels more like a last ditch move of negotiation — a high-profile attempt to shift blame.

Not sure that will work …

nrakich: Yeah, the calm demeanor (unusual for Trump) plus the inflammatory words was a weird juxtaposition.

perry: My guess is that Trump will increase the number of Republicans who say we have an immigration crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. That number is 72 percent, according to the latest Morning Consult poll. I could see that becoming 80 percent or 90 percent. But I doubt that he moved anyone else.

sarahf: So there was talk ahead of the address that Trump would use it to declare a national emergency to go around Congress and move ahead on building the wall. But that didn’t happen. Why?

Do we think it might still happen?

clare.malone: That’s an interesting question. It feels like a Rubicon to cross.

nrakich: White House press secretary Sarah Sanders says it’s still on the table:

perry: I really think that’s still on the table. The move is legally questionable. There would be lawsuits. It would be seen as another violation of norms by Trump — inflating an emergency to get done what he can’t get done through Congress. But it’s also the easiest way out of this mess for Trump. Democratic lawmakers are very opposed to the wall, and some Republicans in Congress are not that excited about it either. Trump needs a way out of the shutdown without losing the fight, and declaring an emergency might be the cleanest approach. Yet, it’s also not clean at all, of course.

nrakich: Yeah, Jim Acosta of CNN tweeted that Trump has been seeking advice on it but is hearing that it would be on shaky legal ground.

clare.malone: Once again, the Trump era is a great era for lawyers’ billable hours.

nrakich: Question for you, Perry: Is there any way that this ends with Congress overriding a Trump veto on a funding bill?

It feels like there would be enough Republicans who don’t care about the wall to get to two-thirds of each chamber. We’re already seeing members who are up for re-election in 2020, like Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, backing away from the wall and calling for an end to the shutdown.

sarahf: GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Cory Gardner of Colorado have called for an end to the shutdown, too.

perry: I really don’t see that. I don’t think we are in a place yet where Republican senators or House members will buck Trump like that. It’s more likely that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell passes a bill that has, say, $4 billion in border security funding, including $750 million or so for the wall. Maybe that can pass the House and Trump can sign it.

I think McConnell is a potentially big player here. A bipartisan bill passed in the Senate (and it must have 60 votes to pass the Senate, so it would have to be bipartisan) complicates the strategy for both Pelosi and Trump I think.

nrakich: Yeah, it’s almost always the president who “wins” in a government shutdown. Or at least this has been the case in previous shutdowns, but most of those times, presidents won only by making some sort of concession to their congressional agitators.

sarahf: We’ve also written that government shutdowns don’t typically have lasting negative repercussions for the party considered “responsible.” I do wonder, though, whether that could change in this situation, because the fight is over immigration, which is an issue that has become deeply symbolic for both parties — build the wall, don’t build the wall.

To some extent, doesn’t what’s happening now force Democrats to talk about immigration in 2020?

perry: I don’t think anyone will remember this shutdown by the time people are voting next, which is in almost two years, so I’m skeptical that this has much real electoral impact.

nrakich: I’m open to arguments that the political fallout from a record-long shutdown will also last a record-long amount of time, but, yeah, I agree with Perry — not two years.

clare.malone: I think it’s certainly a gauntlet being laid at the beginning of divided government in Washington, as they say.

It’s tone-setting, from both sides.

sarahf: Tell me more, Clare.

clare.malone: I think that neither side wants to lose face right now with their base. Trump obviously reverts to wall talk, but Schumer and Pelosi would be pilloried if they immediately conceded. So they are demonstrating that they now have a foothold of power in government.

It marks an obvious change in tone from the past couple of years. They’re on the offensive a bit more.

perry: Yeah, one unique aspect of this shutdown is that the Democrats now have a “don’t compromise wing,” too. In previous shutdowns, it was the GOP that had to deal with talk radio and Fox News telling them to fight. But now Democrats have groups like Indivisible that will attack Pelosi and Schumer pretty aggressively if they offer wall funding to Trump.

clare.malone: Everyone’s feisty right now.

sarahf: That’s what’s so interesting about this — to some extent, both parties want border security. Democrats were willing to pass $1.3 billion in funding, but because of Trump’s focus on the wall, it has taken on a life of its own that doesn’t leave much room for compromise.

I don’t see how this ends without one of the parties getting egg on their face.

perry: Yeah, if the wall is a monument to Trump or racism or both, as it’s becoming defined on the left, it’s difficult to see a situation where there’s support to give even $1 for it.

sarahf: What are some ways the shutdown impasse could end? Because it has to end relatively soon, right?

perry: I’m not sure it has to end quickly.

I do think that’s one advantage for Trump, in fact. It seems like he thrives on disruption. He doesn’t want to lose, and he views compromise as a sign of weakness. He also thinks federal workers are basically all Democrats, which is wrong. But the fact that he has said that gives you some sense of how Trump views those affected by the shutdown.

But Democrats are the party that tends to be more pro-government, and while I can’t prove this, I suspect that congressional Democrats are uncomfortable with shutdowns in general. So I don’t know how long they can sustain this shutdown posture.

clare.malone: If this shutdown continues, I’m curious about whether the plight of low-wage federal workers will become a real headline and perhaps a motivating facet of public opinion.

That might not happen, but for some people who have low-paying government jobs, this is a devastating few weeks.

nrakich: Apparently there has been a spike in TSA workers (who are about to miss a paycheck) calling in sick.

If there’s a perception that airport security is compromised, or if we start to see serious delays at airports because of understaffing, that could end this thing quick.

clare.malone: Blue flu

perry: How the shutdown could end: 1) Trump folds, and a bill passes with more border security money but no wall funding. 2) Trump declares a national emergency, which he uses for wall funding, and a government funding bill passes without any wall funding. 3) McConnell figures out some kind of compromise bill, it passes the Senate and both Pelosi and Trump accept. I’m assuming Nos. 2 and 3 are more likely than No. 1, but who knows?

clare.malone: Can I make some facile analysis?

I think Trump would want to declare a national emergency more than he’d want McConnell to figure out a compromise. It’s the option with more “boom” to it.

perry: That seems right to me and not facile at all.

clare.malone: Boom. Boom. (Shout-out to Nate Silver’s college band.)

perry: Liberal groups will say an emergency declaration is a breach of power. Trump keeps losing in court — and I think he might lose here, too, although courts do often give deference to a president citing national security as a rationale for his actions. Remember, the Supreme Court upheld the administration’s travel ban.

clare.malone: Yeaahhhh.

Conservative judges do seem aware of preserving executive powers in real ways.

But I have no legal expertise to say whether an emergency declaration would be a bridge too far, even for the executive power people.

sarahf: To Perry’s point on how this government shutdown might end — I’m not sure how something like option No. 3, in which the parties reach a compromise, pans out. I don’t see a clear path for either party to negotiate, and I’m not sure how this will play out in the court of public opinion.

Up until this point, the American public has largely blamed Trump for the government shutdown, but I do wonder as it drags on how public opinion will shift.

nrakich: More Americans are coming to see the shutdown as a “very serious” problem, according to HuffPost polling.

But I still agree with what was said above: that the shutdown’s effect on public opinion will wear off eventually, as has happened with past shutdowns.

perry: I don’t think public opinion will shift at all. Most people will blame Trump, but that will be Democrats and independents. Republican voters overall will remain committed to the wall. I think the questions are: How long will Republicans in Congress sustain the strategy of shutting down the government over a border wall? And what strategies will they develop to end the shutdown that Trump will accept?

That’s the interesting thing here: Republicans in Congress don’t really care about the wall — if they did, I think they would have pushed really hard to pass it when they had control of Congress in 2017 and 2018. But I think they do care about preserving their relationship with Trump.

sarahf: It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out, as I don’t think the issue of immigration is going anywhere anytime soon.


Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Nathaniel Rakich is FiveThirtyEight’s elections analyst.

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s politics editor.

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