Watch the Polls, Ignore the Post-Shutdown Chatter

by Stuart Rothenberg January 29, 2018 · 9:11 AM EST

Over the past few weeks, members of Congress, journalists and television hosts agreed on one thing: The looming government shutdown was a huge deal. Then, after the shutdown ended, those same people pontificated about who won and who lost, as well as about liberal dissatisfaction with the deal to open the government. Here is my advice: ignore most or all of this chatter.

Instead, focus on two new national polls, one from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, and the other from The Washington Post and ABC News.

They are far more helpful in understanding the political landscape and how the brief shutdown will affect our politics.


Because the shutdown was never a big deal politically. As long as it didn’t drag on for weeks and months, the shutdown was always more of an opportunity for feigned outrage, finger-pointing and media hype than political realignment.

Some perspective
In October and November of 2013, Republicans got blamed for the government shutdown, leading many observers to predict the party would suffer in the 2014 midterms.

But less than a couple of months later, the political situation flipped after the inept rollout of the health care law overshadowed the shutdown.

In November 2014, the GOP gained House and Senate seats.

In other words, the 2013 shutdown was a big deal — until it wasn’t.

Once again, other developments this year — President Donald Trump’s tweets, the findings of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, events associated with North Korea, how Congress handles the expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and infrastructure spending, and five other things I can’t imagine now — will overshadow memories of the shutdown well before Americans go to the polls in November.

So who won the shutdown fight?

Nobody, if by “won” you mean redefined the parties and changed the trajectory of the election cycle.

Democrats joined Republicans to shut off debate and advance a three-week stopgap measure after receiving assurances from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that he intends to hold votes on immigration after Feb. 8.

Many observers (including almost everyone on CNN on Monday) noted that McConnell never guaranteed anything, leading them to conclude that Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer had “lost.”

But Schumer put a stake in the ground, elevated an issue (DACA) that is a priority for his party and its voters, and withdrew to fight another day — possibly in less than three weeks.

Now, he and his party are in a better position to fight McConnell, House Republicans or the president if and when Congress fails to protect the Dreamers, young people brought illegally to the United States as children, who are protected by DACA.

The vote to cut off debate certainly revealed a divide on tactics and strategy inside Democratic ranks.

But while that division may well matter in the race for the Democratic nomination and the presidency in 2020, it won’t be a big deal in 2018. Liberal Democrats aren’t going to stay home in November.

What counts
So, while you should keep your eye on immigration as a potentially big midterm issue, don’t get too caught up in dissecting the brief government shutdown. It was a skirmish, not a major war.

But two very recent national surveys that show how voters see the country — and how those perceptions affect future political confrontations — are worth your attention.

Most people use their existing impressions about the parties and the nation’s leaders as a lens through which to view and understand events.

Since the president’s numbers are so poor, every political confrontation in which he is involved contains risk for his party.

Trump’s job approval and personal ratings in the Jan. 13-17 NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey were almost identical. Only 39 percent of respondents approved of his job performance and only 36 percent had a positive view him.

On the other hand, 57 percent of respondents disapproved of his job performance and 56 percent disapproved of him personally.

Even worse for Republicans, 51 percent  of those surveyed strongly disapproved of the president’s performance and 48 percent viewed him “very” negatively.

The same poll gave the president very weak scores for “caring about average people,” “being knowledgeable and experienced enough to handle the presidency,” “being honest and trustworthy,” and “having the right temperament.”

Moreover, a stunning 52 percent of those polled said they don’t like Trump personally and they disapprove of many of his policies.

The Jan. 15-18 ABC News/Washington Post poll painted a very similar picture. It showed Trump’s job approval rating at 36 percent and voters critical of his positions on immigrants, the Mueller investigation and the new tax law.

The problem for Republicans is that voters are not likely to believe explanations offered by politicians they don’t like. And many of them really don’t like Trump, personally or professionally. (The NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey showed McConnell’s personal ratings at 13 percent positive/39 percent negative — even worse than Trump’s.)

Any dramatic event that catches the national media’s attention — and the public’s — offers an opportunity for the parties and the president to redefine themselves and their opponents. But it is also true that you can’t make a first impression twice.

The president is not an ill-defined public figure. Americans know who he is and what he believes. And that is a problem for many Republicans next week, next month and in the fall.