President Donald Trump wasn’t kidding when he said he would “take the mantle” for shutting down the government. Trump owns this debacle, which he charged into with the same recklessness he exhibited so frequently as a private businessman.
It’s worth remembering that Trump skated through no fewer than a half-dozen corporate bankruptcies, bullying creditors into restructuring his debt and covering over his mistakes. As one of them, billionaire Carl Icahn, once put it during negotiations with Trump involving an Atlantic City casino deal that went bad: “We’re both on a life raft now. We have to do something to save ourselves.”
Trump always argued that no one got hurt by his financial antics, conveniently dismissing bondholders, contractors and others who had to, as they put it in the business world, “take a haircut.”
That’s not how things work when you play brinkmanship with a quarter of the sprawling federal government, especially when it’s over something — in this case, a border wall — that most Americans do not want. And this longest-ever shutdown has plenty of victims, starting with the 800,000 federal employees who are going without paychecks, even as their mortgage payments and credit card bills pile up.
It’s also hurting everyone else by biting into economic growth. CNBC reported Tuesday that the administration’s own forecasts of the impact have doubled; it now expects the partial closure to reduce the economy’s expansion by 0.1 percentage point a week — which means if it lasts till the end of the month, at least half a percentage point would be knocked off gross-domestic-product gains.
Trump has tried to shimmy out of his declaration last month that he was willing to take the blame for the shutdown and its consequences, but this was a rash statement to which Americans — for once — are holding him.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released over the weekend found that close to twice as many say Trump and the Republicans are responsible for the impasse as put the onus on the Democrats. And while almost half say a serious problem exists at the border, fewer than a quarter believe Trump’s claim that it is a crisis.
The only consolation for the president in the numbers is the fact that support for his border wall has climbed 8 percentage points in the past year. But that boost comes largely from Republicans, which suggests it’s largely a tribal reflex and not an indication that he has convinced anyone else that putting a $5 billion down payment on a border barrier is a sound idea.
Even more worrisome to the president should be the figures in a fresh CNN poll. It showed that while his job approval rating remains steady, at an anemic 37 percent, disapproval has risen by 5 percentage points in the past month, chiefly fueled by growing disillusionment of whites without college degrees. In other words, Trump is losing the trust of the voters most responsible for putting him in office.
When Trump started a trade war by imposing stiff tariffs against Chinese goods, some of the farmers who were affected were able to convince themselves that he had a strategy and that things would work out for them in the long term. But with his headlong rush into a shutdown — in which he appears to have planned no exit strategy — this is starting to look like a pattern, even to some of his stalwart supporters.
None of this is to argue that congressional Democrats do not have the capacity to overplay their hand in this situation, which is the first test of the new balance of power in a capital where Republicans no longer control all levers of government.
The decision by junior House Democrats to boycott what the White House was billing as a “working lunch” on Tuesday might have been an unwise move. There was no obvious downside in being at the table. In fact, their presence might even have triggered Trump into getting carried away on live television, as he did when he met with then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer in the Oval Office last month.
Still, the Democrats’ refusal to attend was a measure of their confidence in their leaders’ instincts and the strength of their position. They have little to lose politically by waiting Trump out, at least for a while longer.
Back when he was a businessman, Trump could get himself out of ill-advised ventures by threatening to pull his adversaries under with him. Now he’s once again rowed himself into the ocean in a leaky boat and, this time, is discovering what it feels like to be there all by himself.