How long can neither side budge with 400,000 federal employees furloughed?
Thirteen months to the first elections in the primary campaigns for next year’s US presidential vote might seem a long way off when so much can and will happen in the UK over the next thirteen weeks, never mind months. That, however, is because Brexit is exceptional.
Lifting our eyes a little, the partial federal shutdown resulting from the stalemate between Trump and Congress over funding for his Wall is already defining the battlelines for the 2020 campaign, and could have a significant impact on the electorate.
So far, ‘only’ about 800,000 federal employees are going without pay, though as the shutdown has already gone over one month-end, that will have real-world effects. In a country the size of the US, eight hundred thousand people isn’t all that many (it’s the equivalent of about 0.6% of voters at the last US presidential), and even with family and friends, the numbers indirectly affected won’t be that big.
However, Trump claims to be promising to keep (part of) the government shut down for months or even years, if necessary. “Years” won’t happen but “months”? Dangerous territory for someone lacking in understanding of, and empathy with, or sympathy for households under financial stress, something he underscored by claiming that the furloughed employees “agree with what we’re doing”, and something events underscored when his senior staff are in line to receive $10k pay rises while low-salaried workers are getting nothing.
Already, at 15 days, the shutdown is the third-longest in US history in cases where federal employees are not being paid. If it lasts another week, it’ll be the longest ever. Coming straight after Christmas and when heating energy bills will be at their highest, a prolonged stand-off will give the media plenty of opportunity to highlight hard-luck human interest stories.
This makes the struggle a high-stakes game where it’s possible for both sides to lose. There are, however, two ways to lose. The first is to be blamed by the public for getting priorities wrong and putting ‘winning the vote’ above ‘managing the country well’. The other is simply losing the contest. There is some scope for compromise but chances are that either Trump will get funding for his wall or he won’t. Fail in the direct political battle and you increase the contempt the public has towards you; win, and you mitigate it somewhat.
It might be that in the long year ahead, so many things will happen that this shutdown will be forgotten by all but those who lost out badly. There’s certainly the potential for that. On the other hand, this is already the third shutdown under Trump; the other two coming while the Republicans held both Houses as well as the presidency. What chance there won’t be at least one more during 2019? Indeed, it would be very much in keeping with Trump’s tactics to aim to provoke more shutdowns.
There are some temporary advantages to the shutdown leading the headlines: it keeps Mueller or Cohen out of the spotlight, though only for so long and at a price.
2019 has started quickly in the US. In addition to the shutdown, Elizabeth Warren moved a step closer to formally announcing her candidature, and Bernie Sanders was accused of ignoring (or being shamefully ignorant of) sexual harassment within his campaign in 2016.
If ‘the Democrats’ existed as a sentient whole, they would need to be deciding now whether their best strategy was to attack Trump from the centre, with a reasonable, experienced and capable candidate, or with a mirror candidate, able to whip up emotion and passion and who stands for everything Trump supporters hate. The answer to that question could then help define the response to the shutdown. However, political parties – and American political parties in particular – are not such coherent entities: they are at best semi-organised collections and different people have different ideas as to how far to fight back, and on what grounds. The House Democrats might decide one thing but it can’t chime with their party’s 2020 presidential campaign because as yet, there is no such campaign.
Even so, how the public respond to what could well be a record-breakingly long shutdown could give us some good pointers as to what sort of candidates ideologically and temperamentally would be best-placed to beat Trump. That doesn’t mean that the Democratic primary voters will choose on that basis but it does mean that we might be able to better assess value in the Next President market.
The British political media will be fixated on Westminster this next fortnight, and with good reason. Outside, the world goes on and in the US, this could be a defining moment.