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What Does The Shutdown Mean For Democrats And Immigration?

Welcome to a special extra edition of FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

hilary.krieger (Hilary Krieger, Washington editor): Welcome to a special FiveThirtyEight politics chat on the occasion of the government shutdown! We’re going to talk about what this means for Democrats, Trump and immigration because, with the government not functioning, what else is there to do? Just kidding, that’s the case every day and we find plenty of other things to do. But this is what Washington wants us to pay attention to, so we’re complying.
Okay, let’s get started.


So, the Democrats finally did it. They took a stand on an issue that shut down the government, saying they wouldn’t approve a federal funding bill if it didn’t include protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children (aka DACA, after the Obama-era program Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). Do you think that was a politically smart idea?

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): My initial thought is no. It will be hard for them not to take at least some of the blame for the shutdown. And I don’t necessarily see how easy it will be for them to reach the outcome they want: a DACA bill.

anna (Anna Maria Barry-Jester, immigration and health reporter): The polling around immigration, attitudes towards DACA and the shutdown paints a pretty complicated picture. The majority of the country wants a long-term fix for DACA, people don’t want the government shut down over an immigration bill, and the country at large is all over the place on what it wants in terms of immigration more broadly.

hilary.krieger: So I’m going to disagree a bit with Perry on the politics of this. I agree that the Democrats will be blamed to some extent, and I don’t think it will necessarily result in DACA moving forward. But it seems like we’ve entered the era of base politics. This will win Democrats points with the base, say to the GOP that they’re willing to play hardball too, and in general the public will get annoyed and then more or less get over it (given their past attitudes on shutdowns and the lack of punishment they’ve meted out to the GOP when they’ve done them).

On the other hand, it’s important to keep in mind that I recently said there was only a 10 percent chance the government would shut down, so I obviously don’t really know what I’m talking about.

perry: If your general view is that people will forget about this shutdown like four weeks after it happens and Democrats will still make gains in November, I agree with that.

hilary.krieger: Yes, that is my view too. But also, embracing a more extreme, confrontational, tea party-style politics seems to be what the Democratic base wants, and this may motivate them more. The rest of the country, while annoyed, has gotten enough used to this brinkmanship that they won’t hold it against the Democrats in significant amounts.

perry: But I’m not sure this shutdown increases the odds of a DACA provision passing. It’s already pretty clear that at least 218 House members and 60 senators would back some kind of DACA-style law with a few border enforcement measures attached. The problem is House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell don’t want to push a bill that the majority of Republicans oppose, even though I think Trump would sign it.

hilary.krieger: Anna, do you think this helps Democrats get something done on DACA?

anna: I have no idea. What I can say is, on the one hand, there’s pretty broad support for a solution to give people who were brought to the U.S. as children some kind of legal status. On the other, that’s been the case for a while now, and it hasn’t been politically possible to pass a bill.

hilary.krieger: Do you have a sense of how important immigration and DACA is to the Democratic Party. Why have they made this the issue to shut down the government over?

anna: The first answer to that question: It’s out of necessity — and I don’t mean political necessity. Trump ended the program and the protections for the people in it stop in early March.

perry: Three things appear to be going on here: 1. Democrats are frustrated with Trump and feel like he is weak and can be beaten on every issue; 2. Latinos are a key part of the Democratic base — exit polls suggest about 15 percent of Hillary Clinton voters in 2016 were Latino; 3. White Democrats are moving left on racial issues — they’re more “woke,” one might say. So immigration is, like policing, an issue that disproportionately affects people of color and animates the Democratic Party.

anna: Right, so I think we can be skeptical and say Latinos are an important part of the Democratic coalition so Democrats are pushing this, but part of the reason Latinos are part of the Democratic coalition is the party’s stance on immigration.

hilary.krieger: On Perry’s first point, do you think this move will make Trump look weaker? How much does this standoff hurt him?

perry: Trump’s approval numbers had been inching upward. So a shutdown and whatever he says during the shutdown aren’t likely to help him.

But I doubt Democrats decided to go this route to take Trump’s approval ratings down — or because they are already low. It’s more likely that Democrats are just frustrated with Trump, from his election to his first year as president to the “shithole” controversy. I think they don’t respect him or his policy views.

hilary.krieger: So let me ask my initial question the other way: How dangerous was it for Democrats NOT to shut down the government over DACA?

perry: I think Anna disagrees here, but I have always expected Trump to have to eventually adopt some kind of DACA policy, because the concept behind DACA (people brought to the U.S. as young children should not be under any risk of deportation) is very popular. So I didn’t totally see the need for a shutdown. But Democrats seem to feel that Trump will never actually accept a DACA deal without a shutdown.

anna: I guess the combination of the last decade or so of failed efforts to deal with real problems with our immigration system, strong bipartisan support for DACA (though there’s strong resistance within the Republican Party) and with a White House with such a restrictionist stance, I’m just not sure what makes a bill pass. Is it the March deadline? Is it the spending bill?

hilary.krieger: So maybe Democrats have made it harder for Trump to sign a DACA bill now, because he’s more backed into a corner on it.

What about red-state Democrats? Are they in a tough spot on this?

perry: I can imagine their GOP opponents saying, “You were willing to cut off military funding to protect people who are here illegally.” Those red states have low Latino populations and not that many hard-core Democrats.

hilary.krieger: Right — though maybe the general trends in favor of Democrats will give them enough cover to weather that?

perry: I don’t think there is much room for cover for a Democrat running statewide in Indiana or Missouri. You need to run an error-free campaign to win. And this maybe is the one error.

hilary.krieger: What do you guys think this means for the Democratic Party as a whole? Are we entering a new era, at least on the tactical front?

perry: I’ll be honest: I’m still surprised Democrats did this. They are the pro-government party. Their members have been wary of shutdowns. And traditionally, Democrats have been willing to ignore their base, particularly the non-white part of it. (Who else are Latinos going to vote for if they want a pro-immigration party?)

But maybe the lesson Democrats took from 2016 and 2017 was moderation is not necessary. Trump won while taking very controversial positions. The Democrats won in 2017 (in key state legislative races, the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial contests, the Alabama U.S. Senate race) while the party was broadly taking an uncompromising, anti-Trump approach.

Look at how Cory Booker and Kamala Harris are behaving: fiery, anti-Republican, pro-shutdown. I don’t think they are fundamentally different politicians than Barack Obama in 2005, but the base wants confrontation, not peace and love (or hope and change) and they are trying to meet that demand. (I think that’s a useful comparison in that those three are black senators from blue states who have (or had) presidential aspirations.)

hilary.krieger: Yep. I think this is the new New Democrats.

anna: I don’t know if this is a shift or desperate times call for desperate measures.

hilary.krieger: If this works, what effect do you think it will have more broadly on the issue of immigration, Anna? You just detailed some of the retreat that’s occurred among pro-immigration forces. Will this reinvigorate immigration activists?

anna: It seems unlikely there will be broad reforms on immigration during this presidency. I would guess that passing a long-term fix for DACA would invigorate pro-immigrant groups AND immigration restrictionists. I would guess they will be at an impasse on other issues related to immigration. Certainly there would be a strong desire among some Republicans to pass something tough on immigration to wash this down.

perry: Whenever Democrats have control of something again, they are going to cut way, way back on the number of deportations done by the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency, look to legalize the full undocumented population and take every step possible to embrace the country’s growing Latino population.

The Republicans (at least Trump, the party’s leader) have to some extent exposed themselves as preferring white immigrants to non-white immigrants and I think that will make anti-immigration stands seem racist and push any Democrats away from them. Montana Sen. Jon Tester voted against the Dream Act (which would have created a path to citizenship for undocumented people like those who have enrolled in DACA) in 2010. I don’t see many Democrats doing that in the future.

anna: I agree. There’s a short-term answer and a long-term answer to that question, really. And the answers are perhaps very different.

There are still millions of people in the U.S. who have been here without authorization for a long time. The issues aren’t going away.

hilary.krieger: OK, looking to wrap this up and get to a national park (they’re mostly staying open during this particular government shutdown, apparently, begging the question of just what the definition of a shutdown is …) Anyhoo, last thoughts Perry?

perry: The sorting of the two parties into one that is very heavily white and another where about half of the people are people of color is not ideal. It creates a dynamic where any policy that benefits black and Latinos gets defined as liberal, and any that helps working-class whites as conservative. A shutdown over immigration policy reinforces that racial-partisan divide.

This is where a President Trump is so different than a President Rubio or a President Jeb Bush. The Norway and shithole comments by Trump turned what was a debate that had obvious racial undertones into a debate that is now explicitly about race. On the one hand, it’s great to actually talk about what we are talking about, instead of having coded conversations that are really about race but no one will say so. On the other hand, if the Trump position is defined as “racist,” it’s hard for Democrats to make a compromise with him.

hilary.krieger: What about you, Anna?

anna: That we’re in a place where the Children’s Health Insurance Program and legal status for people who have been in the U.S. since they were children — two things that aren’t that controversial to the population at large — are bargaining chips for funding the government does not say good things about where we are as a country.

perry: This goes to something that is under-understood: The House Freedom Caucus basically has veto power over legislation, because Ryan generally wants to pass bills with GOP votes. The public is very supportive of CHIP funding and DACA, but Freedom Caucus members, while not explicitly saying this, are not wild about these programs, so they basically want to get some conservative policies in exchange for allowing DACA and CHIP to continue.

The reality is that on immigration we really have three parties: Trump and the conservatives; Sens. Jeff Flake, Lindsey Graham and other more moderate Republicans as well as the red-state Democrats, who basically want a DACA deal and then to move on from this issue; and Democrats who are really pro-immigration.

Another layer of complexity: Trump has very unpopular specific positions on immigration (like building the wall) but won the election while talking about his broader anti-immigration vision.

anna: Therein lies the tension.

Anna Maria Barry-Jester is a senior reporter at Kaiser Health News and California Healthline, and formerly a reporter for FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Hilary Krieger was FiveThirtyEight’s Washington editor.