Normally, it’s pretty easy. Figure out what your base wants, what your donors want, what the pundits already think and steer in that direction. It’s not a great way to get things done but it does explain why most politicians get re-elected. For Trump, the politics of the shutdown are clear: if he loses his base, he loses everything. Impeachment becomes much more likely. Re-election becomes that much tougher. Sticking with the wall is his only option. But for Pelosi and Schumer, it’s a lot more complicated. Things don’t line up as neatly. Morality, politics and legacy all contradict each other, making the shutdown more and more complicated every day. Here’s how they line up.
Morality: Pelosi and Schumer believe a wall is wrong (I do too). Obviously, they’ve both supported a variety of border security measures in the past but the act of funding Trump’s wall sends a signal to the word that nationalism has won. They can’t allow that to happen. It also sends a signal that the way the federal government is treating migrants at the border is morally acceptable. It’s not.
Legacy: In ten or twenty years, all anyone will remember about this fight is Trump and whether the wall was funded. Pelosi and Schumer both know that and neither want to let the opportunity pass them by. Winning the fight gives Pelosi a chance to reverse her image as an albatross around many Democrats necks and gives Schumer a tangible accomplishment in a time when they’re hard to come by. If how history remembers this fight is their guiding principle, then they can’t afford to give an inch.
Politics and policy: Usually, morality, policy and politics all line up. But in this case, the shutdown is causing real harm to real people. We’re now moving beyond impact on the 800,000 furloughed federal workers and starting to see people who rely on federal programs (like food stamps or rent assistance) face eviction and hunger. At some point, the morality and legacy of funding the wall has to be weighed against the way the shutdown is hurting real people (people who core Democratic voters and advocates typically care about).
There’s no easy answer. You could make a compelling argument for Pelosi and Schumer to hold strong no matter what. And you could make an equally compelling argument to reach a compromise this minute. This is what makes government interesting, complicated and important. I don’t know what the right answer is. But I hope they do