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It's way too soon to say that Democrats 'lost' the shutdown

The reviews are in and they are just about unanimous: Democrats "lost" the government shutdown.That's the asse...

Posted: Jan 24, 2018 12:09 AM
Updated: Jan 24, 2018 12:09 AM

The reviews are in and they are just about unanimous: Democrats "lost" the government shutdown.

That's the assessment from the White House, Senate Republicans, a lot of Democrats and especially liberal activists who wanted top senators to put up more of a fight.

Putting aside, as we should, the notion that the government shutdown is a game to be won or lost, it's beyond debate that political parties are constantly looking for leverage and to push their agendas.

From that perspective, there's little for Democrats to like in the decision by Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and other Senate Democrats to agree to a short-term government funding bill in exchange for, in theory, an open debate on immigration.

But that might be an overly simple way to view the many moving parts.

Here are some other things to consider:

This clock is still ticking on government funding

The short-term funding bill runs only through February 8. You can look forward to reliving this whole thing again, but more so, in a few weeks' time. Earlier today, CNN's Chris Cillizza compared Democrats' shutdown deal to Oklahoma City's very bad (in hindsight) 2012 decision to trade away James Harden, who has excelled for the Houston Rockets. It was a deal that hasn't aged well. A more timely metaphor might be the New England Patriots basically giving Jimmy Garoppolo to the 49ers this season. (It looks dicey now, but we can't yet say for sure.) But sports tactical analogies offer a better comparison: Schumer and the Democrats, in gridiron parlance, went to the line with a plan to throw deep, read the defense ... then called a timeout. They'll have a chance to throw downfield again in a few weeks.

The Children's Health Insurance Program

The short-term funding bill also has a longer-term extension for this program that is bipartisan and that Democrats have placed as a higher priority. In forcing a shutdown over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration program, they were also delaying the CHIP extension. That card is now off the table for Republicans. It will be a simpler trade next time. That's not to say it'll be a good one for Democrats, since polling around this time suggested the public would rather have the government open than shut down over DACA.

Here's what CNN polling director Jennifer Agiesta wrote about CNN's most recent poll last week:

Still, 56% overall say approving a budget agreement to avoid a shutdown is more important than continuing the DACA program, while just 34% choose DACA over a shutdown. Democrats break narrowly in favor of DACA -- 49% say it's more important vs. 42% who say avoiding a shutdown is the priority -- while majorities of both Republicans (75%) and independents (57%) say avoiding a shutdown is more important.

No party should build their strategy around a single poll, but it's certainly something to consider.

The Senate is one thing, the House and President Trump are something else

There's been a lot of criticism of Schumer for, essentially, trusting Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to keep his word and allow that open debate on immigration. McConnell has a spotty record in recent memory of delivering on promised debates and votes on things in exchange for support on something else. He promised Sen. Susan Collins of Maine a vote on insurance company subsidies to stabilize Obamacare payments, and that debate and those votes have not, ahem, happened yet.

That's in part because McConnell can control what gets on the floor of the US Senate. He has no control over what gets on the floor of the US House. That's House Speaker Paul Ryan, who doesn't have to worry about getting any Democratic votes. He has to worry about the Republican tradition in the House of not allowing votes on things that can't pass with Republican votes.

But it also means that Schumer's negotiations were essentially with the wrong guy, or not enough of the right ones, assuming what he's ultimately after is passing the Dream Act to protect DACA recipients. Lawmakers need to figure out a way to get the bill on the House floor. And for that they need legislation Republicans in the House will accept - part of a deal that, to date, nobody sees coming.

Democrats' stated goal is to protect the undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children

Democrats, presumably, don't really want a shutdown. It's anathema to their view of governing and a core belief, distinct from many Republicans, that a functioning federal government is a fundamentally good and important thing.

Still, government funding is one of the only pieces of leverage they have in Washington. They have this one thing. Republicans control the White House and both chambers on Capitol Hill (and conservative justices control the Supreme Court, too, since McConnell saved the Scalia seat for Trump to fill).

They can push the shutdown button and stick to it, really, one time. This most recent shutdown, if we're still calling something that happened over the weekend a shutdown, feels in hindsight like more of a threat -- a showing of resolve before the real battle to come. That's a charitable read to Democrats since the takeaway for many, especially the party's base, is that they lack any sort of resolve. But it bears considering: If you have only one button to push, you'd better push it at the right time.

There are several inflection points in this story that are likely to occur between now and the February 8 (and then March 5) deadlines. And a deal that protects DACA recipients has to make it through the Senate, the House and get approval from a mercurial president who seems inclined to sign a Dream Act one day and is set against it the next.

So yes, Democrats may very well lose this shutdown debate, and they clearly lost points (to the extent we're keeping score) this week. But from the perspective of the chess game that is American politics, "wins" and "losses" are very subjective things -- and one can begin to look like the other with not a whole lot of hindsight.

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