Tariff Man is also Shutdown Man.
President Trump upended political Washington (again) this week when he threatened to shut down the federal government on Dec. 21, if he doesn’t get $5 billion in funding for the wall he wants to build on the southwest border.
There have been government shutdowns before (1995, 1996, 2013), and the nation has always survived. What’s different this time is President Trump has taken the blame for the shutdown before it even happened. “I am proud to shut down the government for border security,” Trump said in a weird, publicly televised White House meeting with top Democrats Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. “I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it.”
Government shutdowns are obnoxious political stunts that are always unnecessary. This one, if it happens, will be no different. For that reason, this week’s Trump-o-meter reads FAILING, our second-lowest grade.
During previous shutdowns, Democrats and Republicans have aggressively tried to blame the other party for the shutdown, for one simple reason: voters typically hate it when politicians fail to keep the government open. After the 16-day government shutdown in 2013, polls showed that voters blamed Republicans over Democrats by 39% to 19%, with 36% blaming both parties equally.
President Obama’s approval rating didn’t change after that shutdown, indicating voters put the blame on Congress rather than the White House. But Congress’s approval rating fell from 21% in July of 2013, to 12% in late October, after the shutdown ended. The unfavorable rating for the Republican party rose to 64%, 15 percentage points higher than it had been a year earlier. Democrats’ unfavorable rating following the shutdown rose 8 points from a year earlier, to 51%.
Federal shutdowns don’t affect most Americans, and markets generally shrug them off. But a shutdown can still cause problems, as some services become unavailable and federal workers cope with postponed paychecks.
Congress has already passed spending bills for some agencies, so if the Trump shutdown actually happens, it will only affect parts of the government and about 30% of federal workers. Still, food inspections would stop, NASA would operate with a skeleton staff, the IRS would close, most National Park service workers would go home and many other routine services would be suspended.
What is Trump thinking? It would be foolish to presume, but Trump obviously feels he can gain traction with a sizable minority of voters — roughly 40% — who feel undocumented immigrants are a drain on American society. The catch is, not all of those feel the problem justifies shutting down the government. And while Trump seems to think a shutdown will make him seem tough and respectable, Schumer and Pelosi seem to know otherwise, essentially daring him to turn out the lights four days before Christmas, when Trump is due to be vacationing at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
The outcome of this year’s shutdown drama has implications for a more important deadline on the 2019 calendar, with Congress due to raise the nation’s borrowing limit again by March 1. If Trump does trigger a shutdown, it could get resolved by early January, when Congress reconvenes. But it could also drag on in some limited fashion, which could spook markets more than previous shutdowns.
“We think the biggest downside risk next year is the possibility of a lengthy Federal shutdown that could eventually develop into another debt ceiling crisis,” research firm Capital Economics wrote in a recent note to clients. “Previous shutdowns have had only a modest impact, but this one could go on for months.” If it does, voters will howl.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from