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Trump has caved and reopened the government, but at a huge cost to the Republicans

Make no mistake, Trump backing down from his position is an unmitigated loss for both the president and the GOP

Thomas Gift
Saturday 26 January 2019 14:35 GMT
Trump announces deal to temporarily reopen US government agencies

Donald Trump has finally thrown in the towel. After a partial shutdown of the US federal government that lasted a record 35 days, the president showed yesterday that he’s not exempt from the standard pressures of Washington. His poll numbers dipping steadily – and the collateral damage from the shutdown adding up – Trump ultimately resolved that he had no choice but to concede to the Democrats. The result is a temporary end to America’s “shutdown showdown.”

Not only did Trump not receive the $5.7bn (£4.3bn) of funding that he demanded for a US-Mexico border wall, but he came out of the shutdown in perhaps the weakest and most demoralised position of his entire presidency. That he exposed his fellow congressional Republicans – who stood loyally behind the White House throughout the shutdown – to a humiliating defeat only magnifies the weight of Trump’s losses.

The final outcome should have surprised no one watching the high-stakes saga unfold inside the nation’s capital from the beginning. After the president boasted publicly that he’d be proud to “take the mantle” for owning the shutdown, Democrats did indeed lay the blame on him. Unfortunately for Trump, it was a hugely unpopular – and costly – political mess.

Trump’s dips in polls numbers in recent weeks suggest the extent to which the shutdown has taken a toll on the president’s popularity. According to a FiveThirtyEight calculation, Trump’s approval ratings decreased from 42.2 per cent at the start of the shutdown to 39.3 per cent as of yesterday. At the same time, more Americans continued to cast blame on the president as the shutdown wore on.

Make no mistake, Trump backing down from his position is an unmitigated loss for both the president and the GOP. As the White House raised the white flag, it was the first real sign that the era of divided government would be a new dawn for the president. After presiding over Washington with both houses of congress behind him for two years, the defeat is likely a harbinger of more challenges to come.

If there is a consolation for Trump, it’s that the shutdown probably won’t having a major effect on his reelection bid in 2020. Trump’s conservative base has been resolute in its support of the president since day one. That’s unlikely to change. Moreover, the shutdown likely won’t be the deciding factor in the minds of many independent and undecided voters given Trump’s myriad other problems, including the ongoing Russia investigation.

Yet Trump’s defeat won’t be costless for the president. Congressional Republicans could see the shutdown as evidence that simply standing behind the president isn’t necessarily always the best strategy. With cracks in the president’s armour exposed, moderate members of the GOP – led by the likes of Utah senator Mitt Romney – might find more reasons to break with the White House on policy.

Meanwhile, House speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats emerge from the shutdown stronger – and more emboldened. In the first real test to the speaker’s leadership, Pelosi passed with flying colors. Unwilling to blink, she showed herself a worthy adversary for Trump.

Trump will certainly try to spin the temporary reopening of the federal government as less than a total surrender. Going forward, the president will also continue to hammer the issue of immigration to his base, including at his upcoming State of the Union address. But even as Trump scrambles to mop up the political fallout, the extent of his losses from the shutdown shouldn’t be minimised.

Thomas Gift is a lecturer of political science and director of the philosophy, politics, and economics (PPE) programme at University College London

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