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Democrats are playing a blame game they may not win

Americans want solutions and they expect new House majority to be a part of it

Congressional Democrats, led by Nancy Pelosi and Charles E. Schumer, may be misinterpreting their mandate from the voters in last year’s midterms with their intransigence in the border wall impasse, Winston writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Congressional Democrats, led by Nancy Pelosi and Charles E. Schumer, may be misinterpreting their mandate from the voters in last year’s midterms with their intransigence in the border wall impasse, Winston writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

OPINION — It’s feeling like Groundhog Day in Washington. Every morning, each side in the partial shutdown fight digs in and blames each other for what seems to be devolving into one of the great paradoxes of physics — what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?

But blame isn’t a solution.

At the moment, however, who’s going to get the blame for the shutdown is exactly how the media is measuring “progress” or “failure” in this epic battle of the Titans. So far, most public polling shows that Republicans are getting more of the blame, including a Jan. 15 Winston Group survey in which voters blamed the GOP by a 48 percent to 26 percent margin. This attitude is not surprising, given that the GOP holds both the White House and the Senate, and that in December, President Donald Trump told Democratic leaders he would be willing to take the blame for a government shutdown over wall funding.

However, there is much less clarity when it comes to how voters view the current state of border security. When asked in the Jan. 15 survey who was most to blame for the state of play at the border, 35 percent said the president and Republicans, while 27 percent picked Nancy Pelosi/Chuck Schumer/congressional Democrats — a difference of only 8 points. 

But the more important number that should get the attention of both sides is who people think should solve the shutdown. Forty-two percent of respondents said both sides are responsible for finding a solution, with 51 percent of independents putting the onus on both parties.

When asked who “is most responsible for solving the current situation with border security,” the number saying “both” increases to 48 percent, with independents weighing in at 55 percent. Even Democratic voters expect House Democrats to be a part of the border security solution, with a plurality — 46 percent — saying “both.” These voters may blame Republicans and the president for the shutdown, but they also expect their party’s new majority to participate actively in coming up with solutions.

Also watch: Chaos in the House, Hamilton and Senate Judiciary is all about Bill Barr’s grandson — Congressional Hits and Misses

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A history lesson

Still, as the fight continues, we’re hearing the usual justification from Democrats for their intransigence: “Elections have consequences,” though it seems to be sparingly applied by either those same Democrats or the media to Republican victories.

In January 2009, a newly inaugurated President Barack Obama met with House Republican leaders ostensibly to discuss his stimulus package and GOP ideas. All went well until the Republicans suggested that a stimulus package centered on traditional government spending was “old Washington.” According to Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, the minority whip at the time, Obama’s mood changed suddenly as he told the Republicans, “Elections have consequences, and at the end of the day, I won. So, I think on that one I trump you.”

The Obama “I won” rule on election outcomes stayed in play throughout his presidency right up to the day Trump took the oath of office. The Wall Street Journal wrote at the time that “with those two words — I won — the Democratic president let the Republicans know that the debate had been put to rest Nov. 4.”

The stimulus package, drafted by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, with almost no Republican input, got three GOP votes in the Senate and none in the House. Later, the Affordable Care Act, also drafted with little more than a photo-op or two with Republicans, got no votes from the opposition.

Ironically, it was Obama who, in 2013, after another government shutdown over a policy disagreement, complained to Republicans, “You don’t like a policy or particular president? Then, argue for your position. Go out there and win an election.”

“Push to change it. But don’t break it. Don’t break what our predecessors spent over two centuries building.”

In 2016, that’s exactly what Republicans did, and immigration was an issue that drove many voters into Trump’s camp. Overall, the economy was more influential in voting decisions, but dealing with immigration and border security did play an important role, especially with his base. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone that Trump would make building the wall a priority — a decision not unlike Obama’s to put his main focus on health care in his first two years, a nod to his base.

A change of tune

But when Trump took office, Obama’s “I won” rule suddenly didn’t seem to apply to this unexpected president. And here we are today, with Trump trying to keep what was the centerpiece promise of his campaign — to build a wall as part of a broader effort to significantly improve border security — and Democrats fighting it every step of the way, making funding for a border wall all but impossible in a divided Senate.

Now, once again, Democrats are returning to their “elections matter” justification for opposing Trump’s efforts to fund border security including dollars for a wall. But in the 2018 election, Democrats didn’t run against the wall. They talked very little about border security as Trump focused his rhetoric on immigration.

Instead, Democrats ran on health care as a cost-of-living issue, and it worked. But interpreting winning the House as a mandate against all things Trump and all Republican ideas is a mistake. They should not forget that Democrats did not win the Senate; in fact, they lost seats in what was demonstrably a bad year for Republicans.

This wasn’t a mandate election. It wasn’t an ideological turning point either. Voters have given each side a win and expect something in return: Both parties coming together to find solutions to the government shutdown and border security funding now and going forward to address the kitchen table concerns affecting most Americans.

But that means the Democrats have to get back in the game, offer their solutions and work with Republicans and, yes, the president to find common ground, because that’s where America is and what America expects from both parties.

John Madden, the great football coach and broadcaster, was once calling a game and supposedly weighed in with this deep thought: “If this team doesn’t put points on the board, I don’t see how they can win.”

2020 isn’t far away. If the Democrats’ strategy to take back Washington is to continue to create one impasse after another, all to deny Trump any points, they risk the wrath of voters who aren’t into the blame game.

Americans want solutions.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.

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