It’s long been hard to figure out where President Trump’s bravado and puffery end and his actual beliefs begin. He’s obviously hyperbolic in many of the things he says, but it’s often tough to know the extent to which he recognizes that. He’s been in the business of offering questionable sales pitches for so long that it’s second nature to him, and the acknowledged truth of a situation gets blurry.
So it’s hard to figure out the extent to which Trump recognized he had a bad hand at the outset of the ongoing government shutdown. Last month, he seemed prepared to sign a funding bill and then head to Mar-a-Lago for the holidays. But after conservative commentators blasted him for agreeing to fund the government without insisting on money to build a wall on the border with Mexico, Trump changed his mind. In an infamous exchange in the Oval Office, he told Democratic leaders — in front of live cameras — that he was happy to accept the blame for a shutdown if they wouldn’t fund a wall.
The result has been near-disastrous for the president. A Post-ABC News poll out Friday had disapproval of Trump spike to 58 percent, in line with other recent polls that have shown support for Trump plunge over the course of the shutdown. That, after two major speeches aimed at bolstering support for his position.
Shortly after our new poll was released, the inevitable happened: Trump came to the Rose Garden to announce a deal that would reopen the government — without immediate funding for a wall. It was essentially the same deal, in fact, that he could have approved in December.
But here’s the thing. Even if Trump hadn’t proclaimed ownership over the shutdown from the outset, even if he weren’t advocating a position that is opposed by most Americans and seen as incredibly politically toxic by the party that controls the House, and even if it weren’t the case that his sales pitch for the wall was treated with skepticism even by members of his own party — even all of that aside, he should have realized that the party that starts a shutdown in recent decades is the party that ends up losing the fight.
We need go back only a year for an example. In January 2018, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) refused to approve a funding bill unless Republicans included protections for immigrants who came to the country illegally as children. The Democrats had very little leverage, and the effort was generally seen as a way to demonstrate a willingness to put up a fight on the issue, however futile. The shutdown ended without those protections a few days later.
In 2013, Republicans in Congress decided to take a stand of their own. At that point, they hoped to prevent President Barack Obama from signing a funding bill that included money for implementation of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. That shutdown lasted for more than two weeks, with Republicans in the House passing bills aimed at opening parts of the government to put pressure on Democrats more broadly. It didn’t work. The Republicans — who, like Trump now, saw plummeting approval numbers — capitulated.
The second-longest shutdown on record happened under President Bill Clinton in 1995 and 1996. Republicans, led in the House by Newt Gingrich, wanted to force Clinton to agree to a balanced budget. When he refused to do so, government was closed for three weeks until Republicans capitulated.
Perhaps the last time that the person who prompted a shutdown won the fight was in 1990, when President George H.W. Bush insisted on a plan to reduce the deficit before approving a funding bill. Americans blamed Congress for the impasse, and House Democrats gave in.
This is how it works, time and time again. As our Aaron Blake noted earlier this week, Hill Republicans were hammered in opinion polls during that protracted fight that ended in 1996. In fact, Blake reported, public responses to that shutdown and the one in 2013 mirrored where polls are now: Most Americans don’t think a shutdown is worth the issue that prompted it.
Remarkably, Trump’s Rose Garden speech about the shutdown on Friday was largely dedicated to rehashing the rhetoric that he had offered time and time again as the shutdown wound on. A wall was needed to stop human traffickers, to cut crime, to block drugs — all points he’s raised repeatedly, and all points that have made no discernible dent in public opinion. Possibly in part because, in many ways, the rhetoric is misleading or false.
That he returned to this theme, though, does perhaps answer the question we posed at the outset. If Trump keeps raising these points for rhetorical purposes, he hasn’t figured out that they aren’t working — leading one to assume that, in this case at least, he actually believes the hype.