Friends and foes: Obama and BoehnerNational Journal

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal

Who's at fault for the looming Homeland Security Department shutdown? Everyone in power. Let me count the ways.

 

1. President Obama and Democratic congressional leaders punted on immigration reform while controlling the White House and Congress in 2009 and 2010. Choosing politics over the policy, they wanted immigration as a point of attack against the GOP in the 2010 midterm elections.

2. Just weeks after voters repudiated his administration in the 2014 midterms, Obama granted temporary relief from deportation to more than 4 million illegal immigrants. He did so without congressional approval, despite warnings that such action might be illegal and would almost certainly worsen polarization and dysfunction in Washington. (The fundamental promise of his 2008 election was to break gridlock.)

3. Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promised the new GOP Senate would not allow a government shutdown. "So I think we have an obligation to change the behavior on the Senate and to begin to function again," he said.

4. House Republicans sued Obama. If Obama's temporary order was a half-measure designed to appease his base, this was an empty measure by House Speaker John Boehner. The lawsuit was unlikely to curb Obama's actions or resolve the policy dispute, which essentially pits the growing Hispanic community against conservatives who have distorted the definition of "amnesty" to mean anything short of deporting 12 million illegal immigrants.

5. Congress approved the annual federal budget in December, but Republicans held back funding for the terrorist-fighting agency known as DHS. They wanted leverage against Obama's immigration action. The DHS budget was extended only to February 27.

6. No serious negotiations were initiated by Obama or GOP leaders. The president calculated that voters would blame Republicans if DHS closed. Some Republicans thought they had to go through the motions of fighting Obama before approving the DHS budget. Others thought voters would blame Democrats if the agency closed. Still others feared angering the nation's most conservative voters far more than they cared about the general electorate's reaction. For both parties, the driving concern was not the best policy as much as it was their best politics.

7. A federal judge in Texas halted Obama's order. The administration appealed. Some Republicans hoped the order would help the party avoid a shutdown while maintaining the pretense of a fight.

8. Senate Democrats voted four times to block debate on the GOP measure that would fund DHS and gut Obama's order. Filibuster rules allow the Senate minority party to block debate on bills backed by the majority. When Democrats controlled the Senate, they railed against GOP filibusters.

9. McConnell proposed to "get the Senate unstuck" by decoupling the president's immigration action from the DHS funding bill. Likely outcome: The agency would be funded; Republicans would register a symbolic vote against the president; and Obama would protect his immigration action with a veto.

The leaders in both parties are pandering to their bases, which makes compromise and common sense almost impossible. The Democratic Party is getting more liberal. The Republican Party is getting more conservative. The open-minded middle of American politics is growing bigger—but also increasingly disillusioned, silent, and marginalized.

The fact that both sides are wrong doesn't mean they are equally wrong. Most voters are likely to conclude that Republicans are a bit more culpable than Democrats. "As we learned during the last government shutdown," according to NBC's First Read political analysis, "the side that's using government spending to demand changes to existing law or directives is going to be the side that gets blamed if the government (or just part of it) shuts down."

After the 2013 government shutdown, Republican approval ratings plummeted, and yet that searing example of government dysfunction was all but forgotten by the time Republicans stumped Democrats in the 2014 midterms.

In 2013, voters viewed the GOP as the worst of two bad choices. In 2014, the coin flipped and Democrats were the most-worse option. If DHS shuts down this weekend, it almost doesn't matter who get blamed in the short, medium, and long terms. Both parties will be failures. Again.

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.