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Democrats caved on the shutdown, and they’re admitting it

After the Senate voted on Jan. 22 to reopen the government, The Fix’s Aaron Blake examines what Democrats lost and won in their standoff over DACA. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

You don't need me to tell you that Democrats just caved when it comes to ending the government shutdown; even some of their leading senators are admitting it. Here's Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), a potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidate:

Here's another critic, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.):

And here's a statement from OFA, the political offshoot of Barack Obama's presidential campaigns: “Let’s be clear: This stopgap measure is not a solution. It’s merely a band-aid for a self-inflicted wound that remains untreated.” Another liberal group, CREDO Action, offered this:

To be clear, most Senate Democrats wound up voting to reopen the government. They did so after a deal was struck in which Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) was assured that the Senate would vote on some kind of immigration deal by Feb. 8 — and if they didn't have a deal, there would be an up-or-down vote on DACA, the program protecting the children of illegal immigrants from deportation. Just 16 of the 49 members of the Senate Democratic caucus voted no, and it's a group that is full of potential 2020 contenders like Harris who have a clear interest in appealing to the base.

But that's also the point. Those members have made appealing to the Democratic base their raison d'etre, and they've quickly wagered that this thing isn't going to fly with that same base. The base was cheering Democrats for taking a stand on behalf of so-called dreamers and demanding that they be protected; instead, Schumer has merely been assured of a vote on something to-be-determined that may or may not succeed.

It's possible that could wind up amounting to significant leverage! If both chambers pass a DACA bill or a larger immigration bill and put it on President Trump's desk, they'll either get what they want or force Trump to veto something that Americans are likely to support — perhaps overwhelmingly so.

But that's a lot of “ifs.” We don't even know whether something would pass and get to Trump's desk, and some Democrats are apparently skeptical that McConnell will even make good on his promises.

What's clear is that on the very first day of the shutdown on which the federal government was actually supposed to be open, Democrats pretty quickly took a deal that was well shy of what they were demanding. They seemed to be losing leverage as Republicans like Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) who had opposed the continuing resolution seemed to be warming to it, and if just a few Democratic senators followed suit, the whole thing would have blown up.

And really, from the start of this process, Democrats have overestimated both their leverage and the benefit that might arise from this whole situation. Early polls — before the shutdown actually occurred — showed more Americans blaming Trump and the Republicans than Democrats. But Democrats actually provided the votes against the noncontroversial continuing resolution that meant government shut down. Their argument was always much more difficult, and Republicans messaged the “blame game” more effectively.

Perhaps the biggest factor in all of this, though, was that Democrats simply had more to lose. They have been doing extremely well in special elections and in the 2017 general election. Polls show they have a double-digit lead on the generic ballot, and the conventional wisdom has them on-track for big gains in the 2018 midterms and possibly even winning majorities back in both chambers.

With that as the backdrop, you have to wonder why they'd risk a shutdown controversy going sideways on them. Regardless of who would have won, they had so much more to lose than Republicans did here. And on Monday, we saw perhaps the predictable conclusion of all that.

When Republicans demanded the defunding of Obamacare back during the 2013 shutdown, the effort was similarly doomed to fail. But they gave it a couple weeks, and the base eventually accepted their capitulation because they were viewed as having made a good-faith effort to force the issue. Things are unlikely to be nearly so tidy with the Democrats this time.