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Learning from the Catch-22 Shutdown

E.J. Dionne Jr. on

The lesson of the government shutdown is that it's really rotten to be the side with almost no power. If power corrupts, powerlessness leads to paralyzing recriminations.

Among Democrats, neither progressives nor moderates have fully come to terms with the box the party is in. If they continue to put their internal quarrels above finding a better joint strategy, the victors will be President Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan.

The Democrats' feuding factions could start by laying off the self-righteous preening about how they are, respectively, so principled and so practical. The truth is that the aspirational left can't win without the pragmatic center, and the center can't win without the left.

Instead, they should both be highlighting what the shutdown made clear. In mobilizing raw nativism, Trump and the Republican leadership underscored the extent to which they are hogtied by their party's right-wing extremists. As a result, the GOP is incapable of temperate governance and compromise. The barrier to sensible legislation in Washington is not a left that lacks any institutional authority but the hard-line right in the White House and in the House of Representatives.

The Democrats lost the shutdown before it started, when House Speaker Paul Ryan pushed through a short-term spending bill that narrowed the issues at stake by including a six-year extension of the Children's Health Insurance Program.

The renewal of CHIP could have been taken as an important Democratic victory. But Trump had already changed the context of the debate with his disgracefully cruel decision last September to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects immigrants brought to the United States illegally when they were children.

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Democrats were moved to force the Dreamers issue not just by the demands of liberals but also by the requirements of sheer decency. There was additional fury at Trump for blowing up a DACA agreement negotiated painstakingly by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and others. Most Democrats therefore felt they had to reject a budget deal without a Dreamers fix, even if shutdowns are hardly an ideal strategy for the party that respects the work government does.

Republicans moved immediately and shamelessly to endanger Democratic senators from Trump states who are on the ballot this fall. Forgetting every kind word they had said about Dreamers, the GOP's leaders converted these sympathetic Americans into "illegal immigrants" and said the shutdown was all about them. Trump's campaign committee ran a reprehensible ad saying that Democrats were complicit in murders by immigrants.

The GOP drew blood, red-state Democrats scrambled for a quick exit ramp, and the bipartisan group of moderates organized the retreat. Despite the favorable publicity showered on the deal-makers, there is nothing particularly heroic about solving a short-term political problem and, at best, pressuring McConnell to hold a debate on immigration. There is no guarantee the Dreamers will be protected.

Progressives, including disheartened Latino groups, were understandably angry. But they would be hard-pressed to make the case that if the Democrats had held out longer -- two weeks? three weeks? -- they would have prevailed. The very structure of the Senate is unfair. It vastly underrepresents states with substantial numbers of immigrants and younger, urban voters who empathize with them. It overrepresents older, overwhelmingly white and rural states. If Democrats are ever to gain the majority in the Senate, they have to hold many of these states.

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