WASHINGTON—The unpredictable presidency of Donald Trump has settled, for now, into a shutdown routine.
Trump demands on Twitter that Democrats fund his border wall. Then he gives public remarks in which he talks about crimes committed by illegal immigrants and drugs smuggled over the border, accuses Democrats of not caring about either of these things, and demands the wall again.
It’s his perpetual playbook: pick a fight, rile up the base, exaggerate, cast blame, dig in. But it’s not working at all this time.
Republican congressional leaders told Trump that it would be a bad idea to shut down part of the U.S. government over the wall. A spate of polls over the last week suggests they were right.
Trump’s approval-rating average, as measured by the website FiveThirtyEight, has fallen to its lowest level in four months: 41 per cent approval to 55 per cent disapproval. He is at 37 per cent approval in Gallup polling, lowest since February 2018. Even his favourite pollster, Republican-leaning Rasmussen, has him at a mere 43 per cent, down six points in a month and his lowest since January 2018.
The public mood has liberated Democrats from pressure to make the multi-billion-dollar concession Trump wants. In another sign of Trump’s weak hand, not a single moderate Democrat accepted his invitation to lunch on Tuesday.
Trump’s persuasion struggle is yet more evidence of the political limits of the aggressive immigration rhetoric that helped him earn a loyal base and a narrow victory in the 2016 election. The same language largely failed in the November 2018 midterm election, in which Democrats gained 40 seats in the House of Representatives and independent voters swung against Republicans.
“I have no idea why he thinks a few months later he thinks he can go back to the well and have different results,” said Mike Mikus, a Democratic strategist in Pennsylvania. “The bottom line is, this fight does still resonate with his base — but only his base. Independents, Democrats, even moderate Republicans aren’t buying what he’s selling.”
The record-long shutdown hit its 25th day on Tuesday, forcing 800,000 federal employees to continue to go without pay. Each passing day has brought new headlines damaging to Trump. On Tuesday, Coast Guard personnel missed a paycheque. U.S. news outlets continued to run stories about other workers struggling to afford food and rent.
And Trump continued to hold firm. In a phone call with supporters, reported by the Associated Press, he said, “We’re going to win. We’re not going back until it’s over. We’re going to build this wall. It’s going to happen.”
Mikus said the shutdown “has been a complete disaster for the president” from before it even started. At a December meeting with Democratic leaders that he insisted on being televised, Trump declared that he would be “proud” to shut down the government over border security and would not blame Democrats.
“It’s clear that he didn’t have a strategy. This whole process has been done by gut and shooting from the hip. And as a result he boxed himself in, and there’s no way out for him,” Mikus said. “The American public is not going to change their mind. Because, again, he’s the one who pre-emptively said he’d take all the blame.”
Mark Weaver, a Republican consultant in Ohio, said the current polls are no doubt bad for Trump. But he said Trump is “playing a longer game” aimed at securing the loyalty of his core supporters for the 2020 presidential election, in which he will need the entire base on board.
“It’s the middle of the second period in a three-period game. And there’s a lot of hockey left,” Weaver said.
If the shutdown ends without Trump being able to tout an accomplishment on the wall, Weaver said, he has an electoral problem. But “if he is able to declare some form of a victory that will enliven and sustain his base,” Weaver said, the shutdown will have been politically productive.
It is not currently clear how Trump might achieve that victory. Despite Trump’s claims that Democrats are cracking, the party has shown no real sign of budging from its anti-wall position.
Though he backed away from the idea on Monday, Trump has repeatedly suggested he might eventually declare a national emergency over immigration, a move that might allow him to build part of the wall using money Congress intended for other initiatives. But this might cause more political problems than it would solve, even if he won the inevitable legal challenge.
In three new polls, more people opposed an emergency declaration than blamed Trump for the shutdown; in each poll, opposition to an emergency was at a hefty 65 per cent or higher. In other words, Trump’s preferred way out of the crisis would dismay even some of the people who don’t hold him responsible for the crisis.
Daniel Dale is the Star’s Washington bureau chief. He covers U.S. politics and current affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @ddale8