However, Democrats do have some agency here, and it’s good to see that they are applying it in a responsible way.
Because here’s the thing: It is the responsible position to hold the line against Trump’s demand for $5 billion in wall money. The verdict of the elections was clear: Voters elected more Democrats to Congress to put a check on Trump’s agenda — and the constant falsehoods, bad faith and cruelty underpinning it — and if the government does shut down, it will be because Democrats did just this, placing a check, at least for now, on Trump’s wall, one of the most conspicuous examples of all of those excesses, which Trump could not abide.
This is what appears to be happening. For most of the day, senators have been slowly making their way in to vote on a motion to proceed to a vote on a temporary budget bill passed by the House that includes the $5 billion in funding. As of this writing it looks as though the vote will either be 50-50, in which case Vice President Pence will break the tie in the motion’s favor, or Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) will follow through on the skepticism he has expressed and vote with Democrats (as Sen. Jeff Flake did), in which case the bill would be dead.
But this is just a vote to bring the bill to the floor. Even if it succeeds, when the real vote happens the bill won’t get the 60 votes it needs to pass. And the shutdown would begin tonight.
This is, of course, completely needless. Keep in mind that on Wednesday the Senate passed a short-term funding bill without wall money on a bipartisan vote. Trump seemed ready to concede to this reality until he faced a revolt from right-wing media, which he reacted to by threatening to veto any bill that didn’t fund his wall. So he forced the House to hold a vote on a budget with wall funding — a course Republicans themselves had resisted — which did pass, but Trump and Republicans both knew all along it stood almost no chance of passing the Senate.
So right-wing media pushed Trump into doing this. And do we really need to remind you that Trump spent weeks and weeks telling voters that he and his agenda were on the ballot in the midterms, and on top of that made the ugliest and most lurid of border demagoguery central to that very pitch?
This did end up helping to cost Democrats a few seats in the Senate, where the current action is, but only in states Trump won. And notably, most of the Democrats who lost were actually more accommodating towards Trump’s immigration agenda than Democrats generally. The GOP wipeout in the House was clearly about placing a check on Trump’s excesses, including on immigration, and Democratic senators appear to be honoring the spirit of that.
If the government shuts down, then what happens?
Democrats will have to hang tough. The incentives of shutdown fights are complex, but one thing that often happens is that lawmakers take a beating back home, and how that goes can determine the outcome. In this case, it might seem at first glance that Democrats have a disadvantage: They still have some senators in states Trump won, and those senators could feel some heat.
By contrast, many of the House Republicans from moderate suburban swing districts who might also feel heat got washed out in the election, and many of those left behind in the incoming GOP minority are in red districts, where many voters might want Trump and Republicans to hold firm in favor of the shutdown, in the belief that they’ll get their wall if only their representatives are tough enough.
On the other hand, Democrats have built in advantages of their own. Trump just suffered a major defeat. His government appears to be in chaos. And it’s likely that the middle of the country will grasp that this shutdown is only happening because Trump wants his wall — which itself is deeply unpopular — and not for any reason that genuinely concerns “border security.”
What’s more, there’s the calendar: If the government shuts down, Democrats will be taking over the House very quickly, in early January, and they’ll be able to immediately pass something funding the government -- without wall money -- hopefully taking control of the narrative and daring Trump and Senate Republicans to oppose it.
As for Trump himself, it’s anybody’s guess whether he’ll be attuned to these basic on-the-ground realities. When he tunes in to Fox News, Trump will hear endless praise about how strong and manly he’s being in finally standing up to those dastardly Democrats. And he’ll see something else: a dramatic conflict, with him in the starring role facing off against his villainous enemies. He’ll eat it up.