The start of 2019 was marked by the ongoing shutdown of the US Government, the third of the first term of the Trump Presidency to date. The shutdown proceeded the Democratic takeover of Congress but has triggered a wider debate as to what split government will look like in an increasingly divided America.
Responsibility for the shutdown is technically shared but both sides are energised in placing the blame on the other. Democrats were helped when a televised negotiation held in the White House in December escalated into a heated argument in which the President admitted that he’d be proud to own the shutdown that was soon to come to be. Soon the phrase #TrumpShutDown was trending on Twitter as it appeared that the White House had claimed ownership.
Now, two weeks into the shutdown, President Trump continues to treat the impasse as a fundamental crossroads in America’s politics. His insistence that over $5 billion is allocated towards a border wall is the crux of the disagreement and a shutdown that Trump himself has speculated could last for months.
It is an important point of background to note that only a quarter of the government is actually shutdown, Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer explaining how effective bipartisan working has kept the other 80% or so open and funded. Yet this shutdown still impacts on tens of thousands of government employees and is seeing benefits delayed, national parks and museums closed and garbage left uncollected.
The handing of the gavel from Republican to Democratic control at the start of the year was followed by an immediate attempt to pass a bill to reopen government that didn’t include money for the wall and therefore wasn’t voted on by the Senate. The Democratic offer was to reopen all Government Departments apart from the Department of Homeland Security, essentially isolating the biggest issue of disagreement for a more focused discussion.
Whilst it wasn’t successful in reopening the Government the Democratic gambit did start putting pressure on Republican Senators, many of whom face tricky elections in 2020. Meanwhile the language from the President continues to combine strong rhetoric with the occasional tweet calling on a deal. His decision to stay in the White House during the Christmas period to tackle this crisis was his attempt to control the optics but other commentators have pointed out how previous attempts to find an agreement have been blown up by Trump’s concern over keeping his base with him.
Indeed when the Democrats held not control over any branch of government back in 2017 there was a deal on the table to fund the wall if Trump agreed to protect the status of the ‘Dreamers’ - qualifying alien minors in the United States that would first grant conditional residency and, upon meeting further qualifications, permanent residency. Trump baulked at this deal, leading others in the Democratic Leadership to question the value of offering any compromise when the President’s unpredictability makes it hard to know how he’ll respond.
The President himself has started speculating on other options to secure victory. One is to declare a state of National Emergency to bypass traditional means of spending control, a drastic step to tackle a problem that many argue is more imagined that based in facts. A more likely option that seems like the roadmap for a successful climb down is a renegotiation of terms; that a wall becomes a fence that becomes part of a border security discussion. Yet with Trump’s base energised it’s hard to see if this will be enough.
Optics have adjusted in US politics and the countdown to the 2020 Presidential election has already begun in earnest. The outlines of the Trump Campaign’s strategy are now coming into sharp focus. As jitters, some linked to the President’s own trade wars, in the markets have seen a nosedive in the value of stocks and shares, Trump needs someone to blame and who better than the newly elected Democratic Congress?
At the start of the year Trump took to Twitter, of course, to explain that “as I have stated many times, if the Democrats take over the House or Senate, there will be disruption to the Financial Markets”. This line will be the first of many more to come over the next twelve-months and sets the scene for the prospect of deeply dysfunctional and divided governance in America.