‘The Shutdown Was the Price of Trump’s Tuition’

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Republican majority leader of the Senate, with reporters after passage of the bill to reopen the government, on January 25. (Joshua Roberts / Reuters)

About the author: James Fallows is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and author of the newsletter Breaking the News. He was chief White House speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, and is a co-founder, with his wife, Deborah Fallows, of the Our Towns Civic Foundation.

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

That the turmoil of the past five weeks was all for “nothing,” in policy terms, is what I argued in a post earlier today. After all the disruption to individual lives and collective services and well-being, Donald Trump accepted the same deal that had been available as of December 19.

Two readers write in to challenge the “nothing” assessment. First, from a former federal employee:

Your post suggesting that the shutdown accomplished nothing was true substantively; the legislation ending the shutdown could have been passed before it took place.  

But it missed the vital political point.  Donald Trump became accustomed to Congressional servility over the last two years; and he clearly expected to extort the same attitude going forward, as if the Republican defeat in the 2018 elections never happened….

It was necessary to demonstrate to Trump and his supporters that conditions have changed, and that the governing process is going to be different — including the futility of attacking government itself as a means of achieving political goals.  That lesson will be essential for future issues, including appropriations bills and the debt limit.  

The shutdown was the price of Trump's tuition; and the federal workers who suffered from it — and whose actions helped to end it — achieved something valuable for the country.

And to similar effect, from another reader:

I disagree [with the “nothing” post].

What it does is show everyone Trump's political weakness.

And yes, in theory, McConnell could have introduced a continuing resolution earlier without Trump's approval, but that would have split the GOP and he would have been blamed for it (just because all Republicans voted for it before doesn't mean all still would if Trump turned against it and the GOP base was strongly behind it).

The 35 days of shutdown followed by Trump surrender (actually, failure) weakened his support among the GOP base and allow other actors in the GOP to potentially be more powerful and McConnell doesn't get the blame. McConnell said something to the effect that some folks have to be kicked by a mule to learn (that standing behind one is dumb) or something to that effect.

Mitch definitely doesn't have Trump's political survival as his top priority. He has his own political survival as his top priority.

All the political actors in the shutdown behaved reasonably how you'd expect a politician with at least half-way decent political skills to act.

Except for Trump.