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The Shutdown Didn’t Change Anything, But It Did Teach Us Some Stuff

The government shutdown appears to be over. It will have lasted less than one full weekday. Congressional Republicans and President Trump probably “won,” in the sense that the Senate approved a government funding bill that did not include any kind of policy along the lines of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the Democrats’ primary demand. But the government is only funded through Feb. 8. So nothing is really resolved.

But let’s take a closer look at what (if anything) the shutdown changed:

On policy

GOP leaders in the Senate essentially agreed to hold a vote on immigration policy before Feb. 8. That isn’t nothing, since it wasn’t clear before the shutdown that there would ever be such a vote. But Republican leaders have not committed to what kind of bill will be considered. It could be a DACA replacement. Or it could be something else.

And no matter what happens in the Senate, everyone already knew that getting a DACA-like bill through the upper chamber was the easy part of this process. A bipartisan group of senators has already unveiled a bill that would offer legal status and a path to citizenship for DACA recipients, add some new funding for border security and apply immigration limits favored by conservatives. (Although, it’s not clear that legislation has 60 votes.)

If the Senate manages to pass that bill, or another like it, the real hurdle will be — and always has been — the House. So, here are the two big questions: First, is there a bill that at least some Senate Democrats will like that can also pass the House, where Speaker Paul Ryan is likely to insist that any bill have the support of a majority of House Republicans? (Remember, GOP members in the House are generally more conservative than their Senate counterparts.) And second, what kind of bill would Trump actually sign that would also have backing from Senate Democrats?

So, even with the shutdown over, it’s not clear if or how DACA policy will be resolved by March 5, when the program is scheduled to end.

On politics

My colleague Harry Enten described last week how the past two shutdown fights (two shutdowns in 1995-96 and one in 2013) turned the public mostly against congressional Republicans in the short term, according to polls, but that effect faded away after a few months. The GOP maintained control of both houses in 1996 and won the Senate from the Democrats in 2014.

With this very short shutdown, it’s hard to imagine even a short-term impact on the standing of Trump or the two parties. Could it reverse the small gains Trump has seen in his approval rating in the past few weeks? (It got up to around 40 percent.) Perhaps, but Trump’s numbers may have dipped again on their own regardless; his approval rating has mostly hovered around 37 percent since September, and it has inched down in the past few days.1

Will the shutdown hurt Democrats running for re-election this November in states Trump won? Again, maybe. The Democratic senators who voted against the funding bill (and therefore for a shutdown) on Friday night, like Florida’s Bill Nelson and Montana’s Jon Tester, could be worried. I’m sure their Republican opponents will cast those senators as voting against military spending to support undocumented immigrants. But I doubt this single vote will make the difference in those races.

What did matter about the shutdown

So I’m skeptical that the shutdown will have a major impact on policy or politics. That said, it did throw a few trends that were already emerging into sharper relief:

  1. The Democratic base is getting more hardline and is pushing the party in that direction — I can’t say this for sure, but it’s hard to imagine even this brief shutdown happening without liberal groups like Indivisible and the hosts of the popular left-leaning Pod Save America imploring the party to take a strong stand on DACA. Pod Save America was carefully tracking whether Senate Democrats publicly committed to blocking the funding bill without DACA, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren tweeted Pod Save America’s hashtag #FightClub when she noted that she would oppose the legislation.
  2. The Republicans are really divided on immigration policy — Virtually all Senate Republicans have said they would back some kind of DACA provision. In reality, though, many want a lot in return. Republican Tom Cotton of Arkansas, for example, said he wants numerous provisions to limit both illegal and legal immigration in exchange for approving a DACA-style law. Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, meanwhile, would probably vote for a stand-alone DACA provision. Before and during the shutdown, Graham blasted both Cotton and Stephen Miller, a top White House adviser who is also very conservative on immigration issues. Flake and Graham aligned themselves essentially between the two parties on the issue, instead of just standing with their fellow Republicans.
  3. The fault lines around immigration and race are hardening — Trump’s rhetoric has been, at times, very favorable toward DACA recipients, who are largely people brought to the U.S. by their parents. But while Trump has been hard to pin down during the shutdown fight (at least rhetorically), everyone else seems to be digging in. During the three-day shutdown, Republicans repeatedly attacked Democrats for putting the interests of “illegal immigrants” over those of U.S. citizens. Trump’s political operation released an ad suggesting that Democrats are “complicit in every murder committed by illegal immigrants.”
    For the Democratic Party, forcing even a short government shutdown to defend DACA recipients, who are overwhelmingly Latino, is likely to deepen the alliance between the party and the country’s second-largest ethnic group. Latino activist groups are even more likely to see the Democratic Party as their political ally, and Democratic politicians are likely to court the Latino vote even more in the future and cite the stance the party took on DACA.


  1. That likely has nothing to do with the shutdown, though, as polling tends to take about a week to fully reflect the news.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.