Liberals are said to be livid. Not at the Republicans. But at their own side for what they see as a failure of will in the federal shutdown standoff this week.
“[The Democrats] failed Dreamers, immigrants and the American people,” lamented Seattle’s Robert Cruickshank, a campaign manager for the lefty group Democracy for America. “This reminds me of the fall of 2002 vote for the Iraq war.”
The Democrats’ “cave” was “a stunning display of moral and political cowardice,” read a statement from his group. It was a “strategically incoherent move that demonstrates precisely why so many believe the Democratic Party doesn’t stand for anything.”
Actually, what was strategically incoherent was shutting down the government in the first place, which I’ll get to in a minute.
But Tuesday down at Seattle’s Federal Building, some demoralized activists for the group Seattle Indivisible were urging Democrats to learn from this defeat by … going full-bore tea party.
“They need to oppose every bill and every judge and bring D.C. to a standstill,” one speaker exhorted at a small rally. He was standing outside the local offices of U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, angry that both Democrats had voted to relent and continue negotiating on immigration with Republicans.
“You can’t negotiate with Nazis,” another speaker added.
If Democrats follow this sort of advice, again, they will lose far worse in the next budget standoff, in February, than the minor setback of this week.
From where I sit, as an onlooker who covered previous federal shutdowns as a reporter, the Democrats are not suffering from cowardice. They suffer from a historically weak hand.
Their first problem is that opposition politics can work well to block something (like the approval of a judge or — hint — a wall). But not when you’re proposing something. That’s because in a standoff, the other side can just retreat to the safety of the status quo (to doing nothing, which is the ground on which politicians are comfiest anyway).
Democrats just tried to use the mother of all opposition politics, a federal shutdown, to push a complex piece of immigration legislation (a fix for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program). This mismatching of strategy (blocking the budget) with goal (a nonbudget policy proposal) makes even less sense than the senseless shutdowns of the past.
Problem two: Democrats are so roundly in the minority that no amount of base-pleasing foot stomping can pass a bill. By definition it takes GOP votes, which means — gasp — negotiating with them. Because they run everything, it also means bending at times to their will, at least if you want to keep negotiating with them. Nobody said politics was pretty.
The last problem is dispiriting, if you favor helping the Dreamers. The 2016 election was fought over immigration — over a vision of an open society versus a closed one. And the closed side won. So from conservatives’ point of view, until a new election says otherwise, they have little incentive to budge on the “Dreamers” (especially since a federal judge has for now blocked the ending of the program).
Oh and one more thing: Republicans think government shutdowns are cool. Please make a note of this before demanding another one.
Seriously, for all the chest-beating of the tea party eight years ago, it’s worth remembering they didn’t accomplish a thing until they actually won a series of elections. Even then, few of their “destroy the village” tactics worked. Recall that the tea party-caused shutdown of 2013, to kill Obamacare, was an epic fail. Yet, the GOP recovered, without too much self-flagellation, to sweep the next elections.
Listen, liberals: When you’re marooned this deep in the wilderness, a good day sometimes means not getting more lost. The Democrats were fortunate to wriggle out of this ill-advised shutdown with the Children’s Health Insurance Program saved, as well as no additional ground on immigration given up. You should be saying “whew!” and then focusing laserlike on your only way out: the next elections.
Instead, you’re bludgeoning your own. Which means your opponents have you right where they want you.
Danny Westneat is a Seattle Times columnist.
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