January 16, 2018

To Shut Down or Not to Shut Down?

Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

That’s the question facing Democrats over immigration and children’s health care.

By Liz Mair / 01.12.2018

With another government funding deadline set to hit next week, there are a lot of questions swirling about in Washington.

Two of the big issues are, of course, what to do to protect DACA recipients, the beneficiaries of President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, from deportation, and reauthorizing the Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as CHIP.

Both things appear, on their face, to be bipartisan priorities. Yet major action on neither was achieved either in or within the same timeframe of the last stopgap funding measure, which was silent on DACA, and which did such an inadequate job on CHIP that researchers at Georgetown University are speculating that “eleven states will likely burn through their share of short-term CHIP funding before the end of next month.”

It remains unclear, days away from the next deadline, whether congressional Republicans will write the next funding bill, or accompanying but separate legislation, in such a way that both issues are actually, and palatably, resolved.

Another thing that remains unclear, and is perhaps a more interesting question to ask, is whether Democrats are prepared to go to the mattresses on these issues.

For now, Democrats are keeping mum, in part because they really don’t know what Republicans are planning to write into the next funding bill, and there’s a lot of negotiation over legislating DACA.

But one also gets the sense that that’s because the prospect of shutting down the government over DACA and CHIP still feels like a tough sell for Democrats, just as it did when we went through this exercise last month.

However, just as much as Republicans are at risk of squandering an opportunity to do something on issues that would probably help them with a swath of voters they need heading into the midterms – such as better-educated, suburban women, who seem both more likely to bail on Republicans and more motivated by inaction on both issues – Democrats are also teetering on the brink of looking committed in rhetoric only to getting decent legislation passed on both issues.

For years now, the general narrative that has been put forward by the Democratic Party has been that they are the ones you vote for if you want action on health care. After the demise of Hillarycare in the 1990’s, the GOP basically stopped talking about health care, treating its triumph over the former first lady as definitive and ever-lasting. That enabled Democrats to gobble up and dominate the health care space in the minds of voters, something they largely did all the way through Obamacare passage.

Democrats were the ones to pull out all the stops to pass Obamacare (which Democrats and a lot of independents favor, as do some Republicans if you label it the “Affordable Care Act” or poll on its specific provisions). Democrats were the ones to then pull out all the stops to prevent Obamacare from being repealed (though they did not succeed in stopping a tax bill that strips away one of its core tenets, the individual mandate).

While CHIP was the bipartisan conception of Sens. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, it has come to be seen by many as a more “Democratic” program. Hillary Clinton worked on it as first lady; Bill Clinton signed it into law; George W. Bush vetoed efforts to expand it.

There is a ton of data to suggest that Democrats’ traditional ownership of the health care turf should benefit them in 2018. Gallup polling in December indicated that after “government,” “health care” was the “most important problem facing the nation.” Virginia exit polls done on the day that Democrat Ralph Northam beat Republican Ed Gillespie in the race for governor showed that health care was the top issue for voters, and not by a slim margin, either. Health care also appeared to be a top concern in Maine, where voters said “yes” to a proposal to expand Medicaid. Going back to September, a Morning Consult/Politico poll showed health care tied with the economy as voters number one issue.

Politicians are understandably afraid of being blamed by the public for a government shutdown. But this data, combined with Democrats’ history of association with action on health care, makes clear that if there were ever a time for them to show some cojones and play hardball, it would be now, and CHIP would be an issue over which to do it. If there’s one thing recent Republican electoral victories at the federal level should have taught us, it’s that standing in front of a moving train and not just yelling “no,” but “hell no!” actually does pay political dividends – though admittedly, it is easier for people who may not fundamentally believe in a big government to toy with the idea of shutting it down to win key victories than it is for advocates of big government, which Democrats surely are, to do the same.

Immigration is not as big of a concern for voters as health care, and so on the face of it, it seems harder to make the case to Democratic senators running in red states this year that Democrats should shut the government down if Republicans can’t write satisfactory legislation addressing the fate of DACA recipients, either within or outside of a funding bill. But there are some serious risks for Democrats if they won’t go to the mattresses over DACA, too.

As with health care, the American public has been told for years now that if you’re on the generally pro-immigration side of the debate, you should vote Democratic. Many of us pro-immigration Republicans have not been buying it; but many of us have been unimpressed with Republicans’ ability to resolve what is, in our mind, perhaps the most straightforward of immigration issues: allowing DACA recipients to stay and work in the U.S. legally. Democrats have been depicting themselves as the only ones who will actually achieve that result without deeply unpalatable trade-offs.

But what will it say about the Democratic Party if they are faced next week with either nothing to address the plight of DACA recipients, or a proposal that protects those individuals, but with the tradeoff of massively immigration-restricting measures and they don’t threaten a government shutdown to try to move Republicans away from an untenable proposal?

Obviously, there are reasons to hope and believe that Republicans will, in the end, write a good deal that everyone can get on board with, on both the CHIP and DACA fronts.

But it’s also possible they don’t. Assuming the latter situation, how plausible will Democrats’ protestations be that they really, really care about immigration and DACA recipients, and that the difference between the parties on these issues really is night and day if they won’t vote for a shutdown when pushed?

While Democrats have never felt much pain for their obvious deprioritization of immigration reform or Dream legislation during the two year stretch in which they controlled Congress and Obama was in the White House, nor have they felt much pain for votes by Democrats like Barbara Boxer that helped torpedo Bush-era efforts at comprehensive immigration reform, it’s not clear that the party has infinite capacity to talk a good game on immigration but fail to deliver, or play hardball, when it really counts. Immigration may be still viewed as a “niche” issue by Democratic leaders, but it matters in a way that tends to benefit them and not Republicans in a whole slew of districts they need to pick up to retake Congress.

It also matters to a lot of donors, and businesses that the Democratic Party, in an era where Sanderism appears ascendant, could do with making nice with.

Will Democrats vote for a crappy deal or what is in effect no deal, risking looking more than a little wimpy and undercutting their own messaging? Or will they be the party of “no” if what ends up on the table is basically worthless?

There’s always plenty of chatter among political observers about how political parties need to have a “positive agenda,” and how you can’t win office just by being an obstructionist and saying “no” all the time. But the truth is, standing firm in opposition to the governing party’s agenda, where it winds up in conflict with the minority party’s rhetoric and policy platform, is actually a pretty effective way of winning back Congress.

Right now, that’s Democrats’ main task, and you know if it were Republicans in the equivalent position, they wouldn’t balk at shutting the government down over things equivalently core to the concerns of their target voters; in fact, Republicans have done at least their 50 percent share to achieve exactly that on two major occasions in my lifetime, and have borne the blame for those actions in the public’s mind while still keeping ahold of Congress.

Viewed through the lens of most voters, hopefully Republicans will cover off CHIP appropriately in whatever bill they put forward, and either put forward an acceptable, independent DACA bill or roll acceptable DACA provisions into the next funding bill so all of these issues can be addressed without a shutdown becoming a possibility. But if they don’t, it feels like Democrats will need to take a more aggressive posture, or risk looking like ineffective wimps – which is never appealing in politics.

Originally published by U.S. News & World Report with permission.