In life, pain can be a helpful mechanism in that it lets you know you are engaged in behavior that is bad for you. If you put your hand on a hot stove, it is the resulting pain that makes you pull your hand away lest you are seriously harmed or even killed. The problem is, in a political context, Trump does not feel any pain. He does not know he is engaged in behavior that is bad for him and those around him. He thinks he is right, that he won with a great landslide and that he is invincible. And now he thinks his position of “border security” vs. a government shutdown will serve him well. But in reality, the president and his Republican allies will be the only ones who will suffer. For the Democrats, the present-day budget fight is a pain-free exercise.
Trump thinks that because he came out on top of last week’s border security reality show with the Democratic leadership in the Oval Office, the broader fight favors his position. Not so. The dynamic of today’s shutdown argument will never reduce itself to border security vs. no border security. A wall vs. no wall is not the public question or the political debate. Democrats will say “we are for border security, too, but … ” and their allies in the media will reinforce that position and mostly make Trump look like a nut. Trump will rant, and most Republicans will be reduced to just standing around mumbling for days, possibly weeks.
Usually, in these budget battles, the government shuts down, Republicans take a pounding for a few days and the government reopens. The half-life of any political damage to the GOP is actually very short. But, as is often the case, Trump may take us to a completely new and different place. As John Podhoretz rightly observed on Twitter, “What this shutdown farce will do is make sure Republican legislators really hate Trump, even as they fear him far less.”
The fact is a growing number of retiring or defeated Republicans are skipping votes and are either uninterested or intransigent. The president’s position in Congress is getting weaker by the day. The Democrats will not yield. Why should they? Ultimately, after a howling media storm, the White House will move some money around within the budget proposals and the president will claim he is going to fund the wall via the Defense Department or some other impossible scheme. Maybe he will revert to saying Mexico will pay for the wall. But ultimately, he will retreat and claim victory while leaving Republicans in Congress to limp back home. If Trump were smart, he would offer protection for special counsel Robert S. Mueller III in exchange for some money for the wall. Mueller isn’t going anywhere, and it doesn’t cost Trump anything to give cosmetic reassurance that Mueller’s investigation will be protected.
No matter how it ends, Trump will probably sleep better than other Republicans because, in his mind, he will have won. But the damage will be done. Exactly how much damage to his reelection prospects and how much damage to the GOP, nobody knows.