There are those who believe that the president came out the winner in the standoff over the government shutdown. They are what political scientists call very wrong.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi went into that pre-shutdown meeting in the Oval Office in early December on somewhat shaky ground with her own caucus. She had taken flak in the midterms from Democrats to her left and her right, and there was some doubt, perhaps overblown, that she might not get re-elected speaker.
Pelosi left that meeting not just with her own position more secure, but — thanks to an assist from Sen. Chuck Schumer, who successfully goaded the president — with video of the president pre-emptively taking the blame for the shutdown.
Between that and the fact that Trump’s border wall has never been popular, it was over before it began.
Many commentators, eager to bolster Pelosi’s own cult of personality, have gushed about how Trump has finally met his match. But while Pelosi is a formidable politician, her real advantages are institutional and positional.
Pelosi might be the first political adversary who is invulnerable to Trump’s attacks. Trump is dangerous to his preferred targets — other Republicans — precisely because he can sway his supporters, voters and MAGA media figures alike, to turn on those disloyal to him. He can’t do that with Pelosi.
Indeed, in an era of negative partisanship, Trump’s attacks make Pelosi stronger with her base and with many independents, who split evenly for Clinton and Trump in 2016, and who have largely turned against him and tuned out his appeals.
And because Pelosi controls a Democratic House, she is free to use her institutional powers against Trump in ways that Paul Ryan never could have, even if he had wanted to.
Going forward, this spells trouble for Trump, despite the chorus of supporters trotting out their “he’s a chess master!” talking points.
The president has said he would be willing to shut down the government again if Democrats don’t give him $5.7 billion in border security funding. But, more significantly, he signaled that if the Democrats don’t do what he wants, he will simply declare a “national emergency” and use the military to build the wall without approval from Congress.
“If we don’t get a fair deal from Congress, the government will either shut down on Feb. 15 again, or I will use the powers afforded to me under the laws and the Constitution of the United States to address this emergency,” Trump said.
Among legal experts, it is debatable whether the president can use the National Emergencies Act to deploy troops on American soil to build a barrier of some kind. That aside, I believe it would be a long-term political and constitutional atrocity to do so. The failure to get your desired legislation through Congress may be a political emergency, but it is not a national security one.
For a century now, Congress has been abdicating its constitutional responsibilities, outsourcing decisions and powers to the executive branch and the courts. The reasons for this are complex, but the most relevant one is that it’s usually in the short-term political interest of both parties to toss hot potatoes elsewhere. And I think that’s what’s going to happen next.
The White House knows another government shutdown would be the political equivalent of Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown, with Lucy-Pelosi controlling the ball.
And while there are some Democrats and Republicans who would like to reach a compromise, both Pelosi and Trump have few incentives to do anything that will seem like capitulation. Many Republicans have already made peace with the idea of an emergency declaration, because it will let them off the hook for failing to pass wall funding.
Meanwhile, Trump is clearly enamored with the idea, believing it would convey strength and a willingness to fight. Yes, some court somewhere would instantly stay the order, but that would simply give everyone an issue to bleat about.
Trump would save face with his base and have a convenient bogeyman — runaway liberal judges! — to rail against. The move would divide the larger conservative movement while unifying Democrats, who’d scream “dictator!” while quietly noodling about how a Democratic president could use the same powers for a “Green New Deal” or some other fantasy.
All the players win, and everything gets worse.
Jonah Goldberg is an editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com.