Opinion: Why President Trump won't lose in a long shutdown

Henry OlsenSpecial to The Washington Post
Jan. 3, 2019

We're into Day 13 of the partial government shutdown, and there's no end in sight. Common wisdom says the longer this lasts, the worse the politics will get for President Donald Trump.

I disagree.

Trump isn't likely to suffer politically because he's not doing anything his supporters find objectionable. A Quinnipiac poll last month found that 43 percent of Americans, including 86 percent of Republicans and 45 percent of independents, support building the wall. Support for the wall is so high among Trump supporters that even Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said this week that he supports it while blasting the president's character in a Washington Post commentary.

When your most prominent internal critic supports your position, you know you're dealing from strength.

Now that Democrats run the House, they will increasingly bear some political responsibility for ending the crisis. Americans generally want both sides to cut deals in the national interest, and that's likely to be as true in this case as in others. People didn't want the government to be shut down, but now that it is, they're likely to want a deal to get it back open.

That plays into Trump's hands ó as long as he demonstrates that he's willing to deal, too.

There are pretty much only three ways this ends. The first ó a Democratic cave-in ó is unlikely, but it would be a big win if it happens.

The second, a deal that would give the president some funding for the wall, would be a win for Trump with his base ó he fought and won.

But even the third, a Trump cave-in after a long holdout, should play well with his base, too.

Trump backers are likely to believe his argument that Democrats' intransigence shows they don't care about the border. If he holds out for a month or more, then gives in, only the most ferocious wall advocates will say he didn't keep his promise to fight for the wall. Ann Coulter might abandon Trump in that event, but almost none of his backers would follow her.

The common wisdom is right about one thing, though: This standoff won't help Trump expand his support. He had only a 45 percent job approval rating in a recent CNN poll. If he can't increase that to closer to 48 percent, he's going to have an extremely hard time winning reelection unless Democrats nominate someone who proves to be nearly as unpopular as Hillary Clinton.

Fighting for a wall opposed by virtually everyone who disapproves of him now is not the way to expand his support.

But that is in the future. Indeed, by fighting so publicly and strenuously for the wall now, Trump is building up chits with his base that he can cash if and when he makes a big move to expand his base later in the year.

So for Trump, a continued shutdown is a political win no matter what the outcome.
Expect the shutdown to go on for quite a while until House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., grow tired of the battle and move to shift the political war to a new battlefield.

Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of "The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism ."