Past presidents have taken bruising midterm losses as wake-up calls. They’ve responded by taking conciliatory steps toward the middle. But this is Donald Trump’s Washington, and the president appears to be tacking rightward to the most extreme positions in his party with just days left to forge a budget deal to avoid a government shutdown.
It’s a perfect storm when you combine the president’s steady intake of conservative media with the losses or retirement of many of the last remaining moderate Republicans in the House. The president is now being counseled daily by some of the most strident conservative-to-alt-right Republicans in the nation on which direction to take the party.
“I think he doesn’t have a lot of choices,” Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) told VICE News. “Push comes to shove now, and if he doesn’t leverage for funding for the wall, there’s no way that he’s going to see the window in the next two years where he can leverage for the wall.”
In the past, King was viewed as a fringe-right Republican on immigration issues, but now the president of the United States is often aligned with his policy prescriptions (that is, basically wall all brown people out, especially Muslims but including Latinos) and echoes his derogatory rhetoric toward immigrants. King’s not alone.
The hard-liners in the GOP are now the loudest voices at the Capitol. And many don’t understand what all the fuss has been over this week — after all, Trump merely doubled down on his repeated calls throughout the midterm election for a government shutdown. Some are even counseling the president that a shutdown wouldn’t be such a bad idea.
“The president was very serious about a shutdown before the election,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) told VICE News. “I think that he was pretty close to pulling the trigger then, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he did now.”
Cell phone buddies
Gaetz is still in his first term in Congress. He isn’t liked or respected by many of his colleagues, but the president’s one of his biggest fans. That’s because even though he’s a backbencher, Fox News regularly gives him a platform to spout his conspiracy theory–tinged ideas, including his call for another special counsel to investigate Hillary Clinton. That’s made him cell phone buddies with Trump, whom he says calls him to praise his TV performances and chat policy.
The young lawmaker is now calling out his fellow Republicans who are retiring at the end of the year, a handful of whom have been missing votes this week, to come back to town and help House Republicans show they have the votes to back the president’s position by passing a wall-only spending bill.
“I’m going to support the president’s efforts to get as much out of these low-energy Republicans as he can before they end up on the other side of K Street,” Gaetz continued.
Still many other Republicans are starting to try and change the conversion, or at least the party and the president’s rhetoric, by downplaying what the cost of a partial government shutdown would mean.
“He's in the best position in the world”
“He’s in the best position in the world. What people aren’t talking about is we’re only talking about funding for a quarter of a quarter of the government,” Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) told VICE News. “Soldiers funded. Teachers funded. Department of Labor funded. Even Planned Parenthood is funded.”
“Some conservatives might be disappointed – constituents want it shut down”
Massie even contends that some in the GOP base will be whooping and hollering in adulation if some of the government’s lights flip off, even as holiday lights flip on.
“In this shutdown it means NASA, Department of Interior, and the EPA get an extended Christmas break. It’s not as cataclysmic as most people think. Some conservatives might be disappointed – constituents want it shut down,” Massie said.
The entire Republican Party has now moved right. Just a few years ago, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) spent countless hours negotiating a broad bipartisan immigration overhaul that included border funding but also, to the chagrin of conservative talk radio, an eventual path to citizenship for undocumented workers. Nowadays, he’s as Trumpian as they come, and he seemed giddy after Trump and Democratic leaders turned their Oval Office meeting into a daytime-TV melodrama.
“I thoroughly enjoyed it,” Graham told reporters through a broad smile while walking through the Capitol after the Tuesday meeting blew up for the whole world to see. “I thought it was an interesting exchange of ideas and positions, and I hope the president will insist on additional funding for the border, including the wall, because we need it and I hope we can find a way forward.”
Graham contends it’s Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi who should relent and exchange action on DACA for the wall. But she’s remained adamant that she won’t use those children of undocumented workers as bargaining chips. If she relents, she risks angering and further alienating her increasingly progressive caucus.
Some Republicans still want to stick to the old he-said-she-said shutdown rhetoric that points the finger at the other party, but that’s now a harder position to maintain with a straight face.
“It looks like the Democrats want to shut down the government,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) told reporters at the Capitol after Trump’s meeting with Democrats.
“No, the president said he would take ownership of it – he wouldn’t blame the Democrats,” a veteran reporter informed the chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee.
“He did? Well…” a surprised Shelby said half to himself.
That hasn’t stopped other Republicans from trying to blame Democrats, even in the face of the president’s admission of reality: His party still controls the House for another two and a half weeks, so the onus is on the GOP.
Government funding doesn’t run out for another week, which is an eternity in legislative terms, especially when a holiday is around the corner. So the bright side, to some in the GOP, is that at least Trump laid out his position for all to see.
“I think it’s helpful in the sense that people know it matters to him,” Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) told VICE News, though he wants to do everything possible to avoid deploying Trump’s nuclear option.
This showdown portends a long two years ahead for an already hyperpartisan Washington that only shifted further to the two ideological extremes in last month’s election. There are still many Republicans cautioning against a shutdown; they just happen to be the calmer voices of reason that seem increasingly out of place in today’s Washington – a capital city now seduced by the reality-TV politics that are the hallmark of the Trump-era.
“It’s just a no-win situation,” Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) told VICE News. “It’s easy to shut down the government, but then it’s difficult to open it up and maintain what you were trying to get done in the shutdown in the first place.”
Cover: President Donald J. Trump spars with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., as Vice President Mike Pence listens during a meeting in the Oval Office of White House on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)