As our nation breaths a collective sigh of relief that the government shutdown has ended, it’s worth reflecting on the factors that forced the president to stop holding federal workers hostage even though his demand for $5.7 billion for a border wall went unmet.
I think the shutdown ended because of the convergence of four factors: (1) Trump’s poll numbers were in free fall; (2) Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell finally allowed a vote on two competing bills to re-open the government. Neither passed, but the Democratic proposal received more votes than the Republican bill; (3) The FAA issued a full ground stop at LaGuardia Airport in New York due to massive delays; and (4) Nancy Pelosi made it unmistakably clear that there would be no State of the Union address from the House chamber until the government re-opened. This fourth factor, I suspect, was far and away the most important.
What did NOT sway the president was the suffering of 800,000 federal workers and many more federal contractors. Countless stories of people facing eviction, rationing insulin, and lining up at food pantries did not move the president one iota. He did not “feel their pain.” Surely, these whiners were Democrats, part of his imagined “deep state,” no doubt the local grocers would give them credit, the landlords, pharmacies, and utility companies would be “happy to work with them.” Couldn’t they all just get bridge loans or call a rich uncle?
We know that Trump is cruel. We’ve seen it time after time – at his rallies, in his rhetoric, in his utter indifference to the pain and suffering of victims of tragedies from hurricanes to mass shootings. But he knows that others have compassion, and he was counting on that compassion to make others capitulate, to give him what he wanted so the pain and suffering would stop.
And this brings me back to Nancy Pelosi. She and her caucus, compassion intact, did not capitulate to the president’s pig-headed cruelty. In her words, “We cannot have the president, every time he has an objection, to say I’ll shut down the government until you come to my way of thinking … If we hold the employees hostage now, they’re hostage forever.” And Pelosi made clear that – while the government remained shut down – she would not engage in negotiations. She would not allow the president to use the federal workforce as leverage for his wall. Her message was plain. “Open the government, and then we can talk.”
Day after day, the president didn’t budge. But then, seemingly overnight, he not only budged but completely yielded, ending the shutdown and getting nothing to meet his $5.7 billion demand. The logjam broke not long after Pelosi wrote the president a gently worded letter in which she "respectfully suggested" the two of them find "another suitable date" for the president to give his State of the Union speech—once the shutdown had ended.
In response, Trump acted as if he had not been disinvited writing to let her know he was planning to show up anyway, end of discussion. But unlike the president, the Speaker has more than a passing familiarity with U.S. Constitution. In Article II, Section 3, the Constitution mandates that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” It does not state how or when these recommendations should be given.
Mr. Trump could give such information and make such recommendations from the Oval Office, or some other venue, or he could deliver remarks in writing, as other presidents had done. What he could not do; however, was to speak from the House Chamber without a concurrent resolution from Congress extending him an invitation.
Well knowing that nothing but a prime-time, all the bells and whistles speech would satisfy this reality TV president, the Speaker held firm. In unambiguous prose, she replied: “I am writing to inform you that the House of Representatives will not consider a concurrent resolution authorizing the President’s State of the Union address in the House Chamber until government has opened.”
Upon receipt of this letter, one of the president’s fearful minions no doubt explained to the boss that the Speaker could, in fact, disinvite him and had, in fact, done so. His bullying and manipulation hadn’t worked. He was forced to concede. After that, it was just a matter of time before the government would re-open. The pain of the shutdown had become personal to the president.
There are those who say that Pelosi’s stand was “petty,” and “foolish,” that she “stooped to his level.” To those people I ask, “Did you want to end the shutdown or not?” Pelosi’s approach to the bully-in-chief was smart and strategic and effective. Until Mr. Trump felt some personal pain, he wasn’t going to budge. Nancy Pelosi made sure he did.