The Same Old Shutdown Kabuki

[ Posted Monday, December 17th, 2018 – 18:00 UTC ]

The English definition of "Kabuki" reads, in part: "a form of traditional Japanese drama with highly stylized song, mime, and dance, now performed only by male actors, using exaggerated gestures and body movements to express emotions." Other than it being of Japanese origin, and (now that Nancy Pelosi is in a leading role) that bit about only male actors, this describes what we're apparently about to witness in Washington, once again. President Donald Trump is loudly threatening (with exaggerated gestures) to shut the government down if he doesn't get $5 billion for his precious border wall (that Mexico was supposed to have already paid for, of course). But after all the highly-stylized drama, the outcome at this point seems pretty predictable: Democrats are going to hold firm, and Trump -- once again -- won't get his wall money. How exactly we get to that point and how long it takes to get there are really the only open questions at this point. So, everyone got their programs? Then sit back and let the Kabuki drama begin!

If I sound overly flippant, it's only because we've been here so many times before. Government shutdowns have become a favored way for Republicans to prove to their base that they're fighting hard for whatever bugaboo they've been peddling, even though almost everyone but the die-hard GOP base winds up blaming them for the unnecessary shutdown in the end. It doesn't even matter anymore whether Democrats or Republicans are in power, the tactic remains the same. Also the same is the relative effectiveness, because so far they've got a perfect track record of government shutdowns never actually working. So why should this one be any different?

President Trump is still licking his wounds from the midterms, and he spent so much time harping on about his wall during all those rallies that he apparently feels that it plays well for him in Peoria. Also, he knows that once Nancy Pelosi takes control of the House of Representatives, there will be zero chance of getting one thin dime for his wall from that point on. Trump reportedly really wanted to have the wall fight (and the shutdown) before the midterms, but the GOP congressional leaders convinced him to postpone it until the lame-duck period. So here we are -- Trump knows this will be his last chance, he also likely knows he is going to lose. So he's got to make as much political hay as he can out of it, so he can later tell his base voters that he fought as hard as he could -- but that the evil Nancy Pelosi foiled his efforts, once again.

That's what we've all got to look forward to. All week long, the crisis-is-imminent news will flood the airwaves, and the rhetoric from both sides will ramp up to epic proportions. Friday night will roll around, and Congress will remain tensely in session until the last minute, but no bill will emerge (or, alternatively, a compromise bill with no wall funding will emerge, which Trump will veto -- either way, the result is the same). A partial government shutdown will begin at midnight.

Then, of course, the media coverage will change. It always does. Barricades at National Park entry gates will be prominently featured, as will stories about the hundreds of thousands of government workers who will be effectively furloughed during the week of Christmas. Since the funding centers on the Department of Homeland Security, there will likely be interviews with T.S.A. agents who are now having to work unpaid during the busiest travel week of the year. A sense of impending doom will hang over all of this reporting.

Politically, the next phase will be the blame game part of the show. Both Trump (and, if he's lucky, other Republicans) and the Democrats will be flooding cable television to blame each other for the shutdown. The clip of Trump already taking personal credit and swearing he won't blame Chuck Schumer for the shutdown will be put into heavy rotation on the news shows, which will undercut any "Schumer shutdown" nonsense from Trump. The definition of "border security" versus "border wall" will be hotly debated. If Democrats are smart, about every third or fourth word out of their mouths during this blame game will be "Mexico." Really all they'd have to do to get their point across would be to quote Trump's big rallying line: "Who will pay for the wall? Mexico!"

Democrats, if history is any guide, will emerge better from this blame game than either Trump or the Republicans. The public will largely agree that Trump is solely responsible for the shutdown. Democrats will doubtlessly be pointing out that they've got a budget plan that can pass Congress, but it will have absolutely no wall money in it. All Trump has to do is agree to sign it, and the lights can come back on again. In the end, this argument will prevail and that's exactly what will happen, although as with any of these Kabuki shutdowns, nobody knows how long it'll take. It could take hours, days, or even weeks. The length will be a measure of Trump's petulance and how strongly he'll resist the saner voices from within his own party.

There are two aspects about this particular shutdown that are somewhat unique, both having to do with the calendar. Christmas is next Tuesday, and the lame duck Congress will end when January rolls around. Both are going to affect the debate, and both are going to work against President Trump.

The first problem Trump has is Republican House members with literally nothing left to lose. There are reports that a lot of the outgoing GOP members who lost their midterm elections to Democrats (the true lame ducks) simply aren't showing up for votes any more. In other words, many of them may have returned home and have no plans to go back to Washington at all. They're home for the holidays, and they're not coming back.

Last week, Nancy Pelosi directly challenged the president, taunting that he did not have the votes for a bill with his $5 billion in wall funding even in the Republican House. Trump refused to believe this, but Nancy Pelosi is the best vote-counter in Washington, so her claim certainly has to be considered a strong possibility. And that was before a lot of lame-duck GOP members flew back home for good. Now, those absences make it even harder for Paul Ryan to corral the necessary votes to pass a Republican-only measure. In fact, it may have made it downright impossible for him to do so.

This, of course, leaves Democrats in the catbird seat not only in the Senate but also in the House. No budget will pass without Democratic votes in either chamber. Which leaves all the leverage with Pelosi and Chuck Schumer.

Furthermore, even if it weren't a midterm year, next week will still be Christmas. This has a psychological effect on both Congress and the public. Congress wants to go home and enjoy the holidays. That won't be possible if the government is still shut down, or it may only be possible for a single day (they'll likely take Christmas Day off no matter what). They'll have to be in D.C. for any possible votes, though, as long as the government remains shut down. This will have the effect of creating a monumental amount of pressure on Trump to end the standoff before Tuesday, so it could be a very short shutdown indeed.

The general public won't be paying a whole lot of attention to politics in the last few shopping days before Christmas. But this is also traditionally a slow week for news, so the cable networks might be left with little else to talk about (other than their perennial stories about how bad the weather is and how nightmarish the airports are, of course) other than the government shutdown and how regular federal workers are being affected right before Christmas. This will tug at everyone's heartstrings and further increase the pressure on Trump to end his tantrum and get people back to work.

The real deadline, however, is the end of the calendar year. On the third of January, the new Congress will be sworn in. Nancy Pelosi will take charge of the House once again. Paul Ryan will exit the stage for good. For the following two years, Trump will not have a lickspittle speaker of the House to do his bidding any more. Quite the opposite, in fact. The very idea of American taxpayers funding Trump's wall will be as dead as a dodo.

Now, it's hard to imagine at this point the shutdown actually rolling over into January, but then again stranger things have happened in Washington. If the government is not up and running when the new Congress takes their oaths, then it will definitely be the first thing on the agenda. House Democrats at this point can pass a much more muscular bill to challenge Trump's petulance, and if the government has been shut down for weeks then the public will probably be on the Democrats' side. So if Trump really pushes things as far as he can, he may wind up with a worse deal than he could have gotten on, say, Christmas Eve. Hopefully his advisors (the few who still remain, that is) can explain this reality to Trump very early on in the process.

If the government shuts down, it will be for one reason: Donald Trump. If this shutdown continues past the first weekend, it will also be due to one man's stubborn petulance. If it lasts until the new year, then he'll likely wind up with a worse deal. In other words, at this point Democrats really do hold all the cards and all of Trump's options look pretty bad. Democrats are going to emerge from this battle victorious, and even Trump's "fire up the base" political strategy will likely backfire, because Democratic base voters are the ones who will end up cheering the loudest.

But, in the meantime, we've probably got to sit through the same old Kabuki performance that we've seen, all over again. If I had to wager on the total length of this dramatic performance, I would lay money that (1) Trump does shut the government down, in a fit of pique, and (2) the pressure on him will grow to such huge proportions that a deal will be struck by Sunday night, which Congress will then hastily pass on Monday so that everyone can go home for the holidays. This will be the ignominious end to this Kabuki theater performance, and also the end of the 115th Congress of the United States. Neither will get a standing ovation in the history books.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


8 Comments on “The Same Old Shutdown Kabuki”

  1. [1] 
    Paula wrote:


  2. [2] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Sigh indeed. A government shutdown has become yet another Christmas tradition. Like A Charlie Brown Christmas, It's a Wonderful Life, How the Grinchs Stole Christmases and variations of A Christmas Carole, written, staged, sung, filmed and or animated. Good Grief. Americans sure cherish their traditions!

  3. [3] 
    Paula wrote:

    I kept noting it at the time - that I was seeing all this stuff on FB that seemed over the top and that all sorts of people were spewing the same garbage. But at that point we HRC supporters didn't have any idea it was all being injected into the body politic by bad-guys. We just knew something wasn't right.

    The Trump Campaign and Russians Shared a Social Media Strategy

    ...While the right-wing pages promoted Mr. Trump’s candidacy, the left-wing pages scorned Mrs. Clinton while promoting Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate. The voter suppression effort was focused particularly on Sanders supporters and African-Americans, urging them to shun Mrs. Clinton in the general election and either vote for Ms. Stein or stay home.

    And Jared Kushner's "digital campaign" did the same.

  4. [4] 
    Paula wrote:

    Another piece worth a look:

    The simple fact is that Republican leaders more often traffic in falsehoods than Democratic leaders do — climate change denial, birtherism, suggesting voter fraud is rampant, and more. These are not positions of the conservative fringe. The president of the United States himself has embraced all these falsehoods. If Democratic leaders were similarly likely to push false narratives, more Democrats would believe them.

    Conservative media amplify these falsehoods. This is what links what leaders say and do to what the public believes. Liberals tend to rely on a range of liberal and mainstream news sources. Conservatives tend to rely on a much smaller number of highly ideological sources. According to a 2014 Pew study, consistent conservatives expressed the same level of mistrust of ABC News as consistent liberals did of Sean Hannity.

    Hence, conservative Americans are more likely than liberals to believe falsehoods about the other side. For example, Democrats were about 12 points more likely than Republicans to say that the Bush administration directed flooding to parts of New Orleans during Katrina. But Republicans were 34 points more likely to believe Obama was born in Kenya than Democrats and 32 points more likely to believe that Obamacare included “death panels.”

    That doesn’t mean that there is no biased thinking among liberals. They, too, are more willing to support or oppose a policy because it is or isn’t being carried out by their team. But skepticism about basic facts does, in fact, differ markedly by party and ideology.

    Ezra Klein is interviewing Social Scientist and author Marc Hetherington who co-authored a book on the subject.

    First they cover the concepts of conservatives being more fixed and liberals more fluid - a variation of stuff we've heard before. Conservatives are more fearful, don't like change, yadda yadda. Also their leaders lie (are "asymetrically less truthful").

    Klein asks if all conservatives are just more prone to dishonesty or is the leadership (paraphrasing)? Hetherington says they're intertwined and hard to separate.

    Maybe his book (Prius or Pickup, co-written by Jonathan Weiler) goes into this more but in the interview I think he misses the significance of what happens when major media pumps out lies year after year. The rightwing media machine is the key to why/how Repubs and Dems have become so polarized. I think it's less important that "conservatives" are more "fixed" and authoritarian than it is that powerful voices deliberately and relentlessly manipulated conservatives, taking advantage of their fixed and authoritarian leanings.

  5. [5] 
    Paula wrote:

    A very good tweet thread by a woman who started out for Bernie, supported HRC after primaries, but found herself muting her support online, to her subsequent regret, because Berniers would get upset and the media was running full bore with anti-HRC stories.

  6. [6] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    Well then, you do have the diversion! diversion! thing kicking in, too, you know, the one big thing that everyone looks at while a million little things dart in from the sides - we'll be finding out for weeks what was in this thing after its passed, and long after the diversion itself is gone as well...

  7. [7] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    Paula [4]

    Your paragraph about noting that " . . I was seeing all this stuff on FB that seemed over the top and that all sorts of people were spewing the same garbage" inevitably raises the question, what does it say about you that you are still hooked on FB?

  8. [8] 
    Paula wrote:

    And whadayaknow - Greg Sargeant of WaPo tweets:

    "The claim that "Hillary partisans only talk about Russia to make excuses for her corrupt failings" is literally what Russian disinformation teams said as part of their campaign to discredit the Mueller probe."

Comments for this article are closed.