Ben Wikler is the Washington director of MoveOn.org
“The Republican leader and I have come to an arrangement,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced Monday, 60 hours into the federal shutdown. “We will vote today to open the government.” What Schumer didn’t announce was a deal to protect “dreamers” from the consequences of President Trump’s decision to throw the lives of DACA recipients — and their families — into turmoil. There was no such deal. I, and many other progressives, were furious. Furious that hundreds of thousands of fellow Americans — in every sense except documentation — would keep living in fear. Furious that Republicans who claim to support dreamers again catered to a malicious fringe. And furious that Democrats prematurely gave in. But the pain of this setback doesn’t mean Democrats weren’t right to take a stand in the first place. There is hope yet.
Yes, Democrats should have pressed their case beyond Monday. Looking back, it appears that Democrats had a stronger hand than they understood, and Republicans a weaker one. While nothing was certain, it’s a real possibility that grit from Democrats could have yielded a breakthrough.
We now know that public opinion was moving sharply toward Democrats. A Morning Consult/Politico tracking poll showed voters swinging toward the view that the fight over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals was worth a shutdown, from an even 42-42 split beforehand to a favorable 47-38 once the shutdown had started. Every national poll has found the public blaming Trump and Republicans rather than Democrats.
For those who believe government is an important force in people’s lives, shutdowns are not to be taken lightly. But on this issue of fundamental principle, the political risk was weighted toward Trump and Republicans, who were prolonging the shutdown to avoid doing something the public wanted — and that they’d already promised to do.
Meanwhile, grass-roots organizations were preparing to pile pressure on the GOP. Groups such as United We Dream, MoveOn and Indivisible were busy organizing dozens of protests at federal buildings for the coming week to demand that Trump make a deal and reopen the government.
Media reports suggest that Trump himself, who has long argued that presidents are responsible for shutdowns, wanted to cut a deal. There’s a real possibility that, as public outrage mounted, Trump would have returned to the negotiating table and endorsed a plan. If this had worked, a dreamer agreement attached to a must-pass continuing resolution and supported by the president would have had a real chance in the House. Instead, Trump is shoving off to Davos, and dreamers remain in excruciating limbo.
Still, Democrats’ earlier vote against the GOP should be applauded. It’s a mark of distinction that Democrats, after months of organizing by dreamers and the progressive movement, showed some steel, however briefly. It was an act of principle and bravery, and in practical terms, it advanced the cause of justice — even if a poor assessment of the politics led Democrats to cut that advance short.
Suppose Democrats had meekly accepted the GOP’s continuing resolution last week — despite months of promising to do all they could to help dreamers. In that case, Republicans would have experienced zero pressure to reach a deal. The vote would have come and gone with little public notice. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would not have promised — to Democrats, to his own caucus, to the world — a floor debate, concluding with a vote.
Instead, the fight continues. The urgent need to protect dreamers is now front and center in the national conversation, and it will be the Senate’s focus over the coming weeks. Pressure is building on Republicans to do the right thing.
Eighty-seven percent of the American public wants protections for dreamers. That’s as close as you get to a consensus in U.S. politics. Activists and the public will redouble pressure on the GOP to stand up to the small cadre of racists who have exercised effective veto power over national immigration policy for the last decade.
Now, the clock is ticking. The Children’s Health Insurance Program is no longer held hostage. With more pressure, Trump might move. If Republicans fail to protect dreamers, the experience of this weekend suggests they will face electoral consequences. If deportations of dreamers ramp up, the anger that activists have directed at Democrats will be as nothing compared with the scorching rage directed at the president and the party causing this needless tragedy to unfold.