After 35 days, President Donald Trump announced a deal to reopen the government on exactly the same terms that were available to him more than a month ago: A short-term funding bill with continuing negotiations on border security. Trump didn’t so much cave as he just plain lost. He didn’t have the votes, and as time went on he was even farther away from having them.

Yes, there will be some negotiations in a House-Senate conference committee over what to do about border security, and Democrats will cut a deal for increased spending that they would have been willing to agree to in December. But the border wall remains as dead as ever.

In a rambling Rose Garden statement, Trump still held out the threat of another shutdown when this bill runs out on Feb. 15. He also suggested he could invoke emergency powers to build his wall if the conference committee doesn’t come up with the funding. Neither is very likely. Support for Trump’s position has collapsed among Hill Republicans after last Thursday’s votes demonstrated his weak position, and as the air traffic control system started more visibly eroding last Friday morning. Given that, it’s hard to believe that Senate Republicans would shut down the government again, only to find themselves in exactly the same situation.

Once again, the lesson is that government shutdowns are not some magical trump card that one side can play to force the other to surrender. In fact, as the third extended shutdown in U.S. history comes to an end, it’s obvious that whatever the ethics of harming the nation in order to win a policy battle might be, such a maneuver is entirely ineffective as a negotiating tactic. And yet Republicans — the Newt Gingrich Republicans in 1995-1996, the Ted Cruz Republicans in 2013, and Trump and his supporters in 2018-2019 — keep trying anyway. One would hope they have finally learned how futile it is.

Granted, this time, it seems to have just been Trump personally who thought it was a good idea, perhaps egged on by a few House Freedom Caucus members. Other Republicans believed (correctly or not) that they were simply trapped into going along. Perhaps they were right; maybe if they had ended this in December or in early January, Trump would have turned his scorn on them and caused them greater political trouble than they endured.

Trump’s actions, on the other hand, just seem entirely irrational. He can always go down to the border, find some newly repainted or repaired fencing, declare a glorious victory, and the Fox News audience would go along. Or to put it another way:

Given that, forcing a confrontation that he was almost certain to lose just never made any sense.

Unfortunately, that means we still can’t be entirely certain that there won’t be a shutdown in February. 

As Richard Neustadt said, “The presidency is no place for amateurs.” It’s very rare indeed for a president to retain that status in his third year in the Oval Office, but then again everything about Trump is very rare. With any luck, the next time he tries something this obviously inept it will be less damaging to the nation, but there’s no guarantee of that.

Be the first to know - Sign up for Breaking News

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Bernstein is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.


Load comments