What kind of a workers' party makes crucial employees work without pay?
Leave aside whether President Trump's border wall is actually good policy or even a winning political issue. Even if it's both, shutting down the government over it won't advance his broader political agenda.
The federal government has been shut down before because of conflicts between the executive and legislative branches over spending. Three times during the 1980s, President Reagan vetoed appropriations bills over spending that he opposed; in all cases, the government was back up and running within a day after a compromise was reached. Twice in the 1990s, President Clinton shut down the government after the GOP Congress passed bills that cut projected spending more than he would accept. The crisis was ultimately resolved, and largely in Clinton's favor. And in 2013, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) pushed his party to shut down the government when President Obama refused to scuttle his signature health-care law. The maneuver raised Cruz's political profile and caused his fellow Senators to hate him even more than they already did, but accomplished little else.
The circumstances and outcomes varied between all of these cases. But the commonality was that the GOP in each case sought to restrain or cut spending and was prepared to shut the government down entirely to demonstrate, as dramatically as possible, just how serious they were about that question. The message, delivered with less and less subtlety as the decades went by, was: better no government at all than a government too overweeningly huge.
That's precisely why the ongoing shutdown is distinctly anomalous. The Republican president is demanding not less spending, but more, for his pet project. The message isn't "settle for half a loaf or you'll get none" — it's "if I can't have cake then no one will."
And that "no one" isn't code for "no Democrats." The shutdown has already begun to cause pain well beyond the D.C. suburbs, and into Trump country. While a large chunk of federal workers are based near the capital, most are spread out across the nation — and form a larger percentage of the workforce in states like Alaska, West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Missouri than states like New York and Illinois. That's one reason why GOP senators from Cory Gardner (Colo.), to Shelly Moore Capito (W.Va.) to Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) are asking why their constituents should to be held hostage in this manner to what is ultimately a fairly normal political dispute. And while Trump may believe that his voters support his priorities and will therefore blame the Democrats more than him (as they so far have done), they elected Trump to fix problems, not to grandstand. If they'd wanted to shut down the government, after all, they could have nominated Ted Cruz.
Shutting down the government is a quixotic tactic to deploy when you think the government needs to do more — something the Democrats quickly discovered when they flirted with trying to shut down the government over DACA. But Trump's wall shutdown is even odder than that. With exceptions like Rand Paul and Justin Amash, the Tea Party Republicans who shut down the government over spending on health care by and large supported spending on law enforcement and security. But they never threatened to shut down the government in order to demand higher security spending. And yet, that's what Trump has done. Regardless of how poor a solution the proposed wall is to the kinds of problems Trump has highlighted (the overwhelming majority of illegal drugs, for example, are smuggled in through regular ports of entry, not across empty stretches of the Sonoran desert), it makes very little sense to respond to a security crisis by forcing employees of the TSA, the FBI, and ICE to work without pay. How tight does Trump think the border is going to be as these employees increasingly call in sick?
Trump's medium blatantly contradicts his message. His embrace of a Reagan/Gingrich/Tea Party tactic underscores once again the substantial gap between his purported ambition to transform the GOP into a workers' party, and the reality that his administration has by and large pursued traditional Republican economic and social goals. If he wanted to demonstrate seriousness and resolve, he needed to find a way to take action, not grind the government to a halt.
Unfortunately, that's probably why declaring a national emergency — even on entirely fictitious grounds — sounds pretty appealing to him right now.