The partial government shutdown is now about two weeks old, with no sign of abating. Neither side seems willing to budge or even negotiate, really. Newly installed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said there won’t be any border-wall funding, period. Trump, meanwhile, hasn’t backed off his insistence on $5 billion for the wall.
It’s true that government shutdowns always appear unending, until they end. Both sides have incentive to signal a total unwillingness to back down. Projections about a months-long holdout are often just a way of saying you’ll wait the other side out.
But this time, things really might be different, because of Trump’s pride. Trump has reportedly told aides that he can’t give in because he “would look foolish if I did that." There’s something to that.
Trump has earned a reputation as something of a bluffer on these matters. He has repeatedly threatened to hold government funding hostage over the border wall — including in 2017 and last fall — only to back down. In March, he abandoned his veto threat and signed a $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill that he called “ridiculous.” (There are plenty of other bluffs, too.)
Part of repeatedly bluffing, though, is that people stop taking you seriously. Eventually, you need to prove you are immovable — that sometimes, you really won’t cave. If Trump were to give in for the fourth time on a spending debate (especially after drawing the nation’s attention to the whole thing by shutting the government down in the first place), it would be a real sign of weakness.
And the stakes are much higher now that the Democrats have taken control of the House. In the past, Trump relented to allow the GOP-controlled House and Senate to move forward. If he gives in this time, he’ll be bowing to pressure from the Democrats, including his new political nemesis, Pelosi.
The Trump-had-his-bluff-called narrative was somewhat obscured for the past two years because the debates weren’t so high-profile, and it wasn’t so clearly a Trump-vs.-Democrats setup. That’s no longer the case. It’s more of a binary choice. And Trump has held the line long enough to make this a battle of wills that the nation is watching.
There is little doubt that Democrats have the upper hand here. The border wall is unpopular. The GOP is the side asking for something beyond the clean government funding bill the Democrats are willing to pass. Oh, and Trump already blamed himself for the shutdown. That’s not a recipe for winning the PR battle.
But winning the political debate is one thing; being more stubborn is another. Trump is someone who prides himself on winning, and capitulating now — without getting something real in return for his holdout — would be a clear and very high-profile loss. He would indeed “look foolish." And for Democrats and even the many Republicans who apparently would like to move past this debate over $5 billion, that’s not a recipe for a quick resolution.