The government shutdown was overwhelmingly the fault of Republican leaders. They, not Democrats, are the ones trying to make sharp changes in federal policy, like reduced legal immigration and a border wall. Democrats are largely trying to preserve programs — children’s health insurance and Dreamer protections — that many Republicans say they, too, support.
The Republican Party, of course, is also the one led by a president who doesn’t know enough about policy to negotiate on his own behalf. Everyone was able to see that two weeks ago during a televised White House meeting, when other Republicans had to correct President Donald Trump — gently and awkwardly — about what he was supposed to believe. Trump, as The Washington Post reported this weekend, is “clearly not understanding the policy nuances of the negotiation.”
And yet to say that Republicans are responsible for the shutdown is not the same as saying that they would suffer most from a protracted shutdown. I worry that some progressives are missing that distinction. The shutdown has created one of the more treacherous political moments of Trump’s presidency for Democrats. It’s one they can navigate, but it requires subtlety.
So far during Trump’s time in office, principled policy and savvy politics have generally aligned for Democrats. They stymied Republican attempts to take health insurance from millions of people. Democrats tried to block a huge, permanent tax cut for the wealthy that came with small, disappearing tax cuts for everyone else. Democrats have opposed Trump’s efforts to let big corporations operate without much oversight. In each case, it has been both good policy and good politics.
The shutdown is different, and more complicated. It’s more complicated because it has turned into a mini-culture war, over immigration.
A culture war over immigration replays the racialized debate that dominated the 2016 presidential campaign. As much as it saddens me to say it, the evidence is pretty clear that a racialized debate helps Trump. It’s the kind of debate that will make it harder for Democrats to retake the Senate and House this year.
Multiple studies have found that the political views of white Americans drift to the right when they are reminded that the country’s population is slowly becoming less white. And many of these voters are winnable for Democrats. A good number, remember, voted for Barack Obama. They may have some racist views — many people do — but they’re neither deplorable nor irredeemable human beings. Steve Bannon, the guru of white nationalism, understood this dynamic, once saying, “The Democrats, the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ‘em.”
Similarly, some innovative polling by YouGov has found that a large portion of white Americans see “prohibiting discrimination against women and minorities” as one of the Democratic Party’s top priorities. Unfortunately, few white Americans who aren’t already loyal Democrats say the same issue is one of their own priorities. They’re more worried about their own struggles, many of which are economic. “It’s a political liability for Democrats,” Doug Rivers, YouGov’s chief scientist told me, “in the same way being the party of the rich is a problem for Republicans.”
I know that many progressives are sick of hearing about white voters, but it’s extremely hard to succeed in American politics without winning a good portion of them. About 69 percent of eligible voters are non-Hispanic whites. They have outsize power, too, thanks to a combination of their turnout rates, their geographic dispersion, gerrymandering and the Senate’s small-state bonus.
Briahna Joy Gray wrote a must-read essay on this topic for New York magazine, titled, “Racism May Have Gotten Us Into This Mess, but Identity Politics Can’t Get Us Out.” Or as Matthew Yglesias wrote in Vox last week, “If you want to help the people most severely victimized by Trumpism, you need to beat Trumpism at the polls.”
The best debate for Democrats is one that keeps reminding white working-class voters that they’re working class. It’s a debate about Medicare, Medicaid, taxes or Wall Street. The worst debate is one that keeps reminding those voters that they’re white.
To put it another way, if you’re a Democrat who’s frustrated that Republicans have managed to turn the shutdown into a fight over immigration, ask yourself: Why would they do that?
Democratic leaders are certainly right to insist on protection for the Dreamers. The question is whether the best way to protect them — and the best way to elect politicians who will help them in the long term — involves keeping immigration policy in the political spotlight for weeks on end.
It was a smart move for Democrats to accept a short-term funding bill that ends the shutdown and diffuses the tension. Republican leaders were open to that solution because they have their own vulnerabilities. Their party is the majority party, often blamed for dysfunction.
That solution feels a bit unsatisfying, I know. But tactical retreats can lead to big victories in the future.
David Leonhardt is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times.