David Leonhardt: A lot of progressives are disappointed...
A lot of progressives are angry or disappointed this morning. They're upset that "spineless" Democrats in Congress didn't take a stand — by keeping the federal government closed until Republicans agreed to protect the young immigrants known as Dreamers.
I fully understand their anxiety on behalf of those immigrants, the Dreamers. The future of the Dreamers remains unclear. But it's worth taking a minute to understand the very large assumption that unhappy progressives are making. When you examine that assumption — and recent congressional history — I think you end up seeing that Democrats made a smart move to reopen the government. Unfortunately, their choice wasn't, as the critics claim, between protecting or abandoning the Dreamers.
The critics' big assumption is that the Republicans would have eventually folded if the government had remained shut down. The theory goes something like this:
Republicans are running the country right now, and a long shutdown would hurt them more than it hurts Democrats. At some point, feeling the political heat, Republicans would have agreed to what the Democrats wanted, including protection for the Dreamers.
No one can know what would have happened in a hypothetical scenario, but there are many reasons to be skeptical of these assumptions.
First, it's the same case that conservative activists made during the Obama and Clinton presidencies. In 2013, conservatives were trying to get Democrats to defund Obamacare and thought they could force the governing party to do so by shuttering the government.
The effort failed, under Obama and Clinton, for a simple reason. Democrats understood that if they gave in, they would allow the Republicans to repeat the exercise whenever they wanted: Shut the government until the governing party paid ransom. The minority party would effectively be in control.
Cathleen Decker of The Los Angeles Times put it this way: "In all the anger coming from liberal Dem groups today," she wrote that she had "yet to see a scenario under which a longer shutdown would have resulted in a more positive outcome from their point of view."
The second reason to be skeptical of the critics is that their big assumption depends on the belief that a long shutdown would have put more political pressure on the Republicans and Democrats. As evidence, the critics cite polls showing that most voters believe the Dreamers deserve to remain in this country.
Of course, polls also showed Obamacare to be unpopular in 2013. More important, recent polls showed that most voters didn't believe the government should be shut down over the Dreamers. Most polls also showed support for the Democrats slipping as the debate dragged on. And as I explained in my column yesterday, there is abundant evidence that a prolonged debate over illegal immigration helps Republicans, not Democrats.
In the end, I think a long shutdown was more likely to hurt the Dreamers than to help them. Congress would not have passed a law to protect them before reopening the government, and the Dreamers' allies in Congress — the Democrats — would be in a weaker position than they are now.
That said, the critics' disappointment stems from a profoundly decent instinct. They're worried about Dreamers being ripped from their lives in this country. I share the worry — and the anger at Republican leaders who refuse to solve this problem.
But it's just not the case that a minority party can force the majority party to do what it wants if only it summons enough righteous anger. It never has been. It's another version of the Green Lantern Theory of politics — that if you care enough and try hard enough, you can do anything.
The best hope for the Dreamers was not a shutdown that was somehow supposed to end differently from every other recent shutdown. The best hope, first, is to see if there is a solution over the next few weeks, away from the chaos and heat of a shuttered federal government.
If that doesn't work, there is only one reliable way to change a policy that the majority party won't change: Turn that party into the minority party.
My biggest question for Democratic leaders is whether they could have made the same deal a couple of days ago. If so, it would have been better. But it probably doesn't matter either way. A two-day shutdown isn't going to affect the political scene months from now.
My colleagues David Brooks and Michelle Goldberg make a different case from mine, arguing, from different perspectives, that the Democrats got rolled.