January 17, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Why Don’t the Dems Compromise?

Because, as the party holding all the aces, they don't have to.

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MSNBC’s Steven Benen asked a good question Wednesday that we all should think about: Why haven’t the Democrats compromised with the president?

Consider the Democrats’ reputation, fair or not, as being the party of squish politics. Lean on them, and they roll over. This assumption is so prevalent it’s unnoticed. It has characterized all intra-party conflict for two years. It’s the prevailing view on Fox News. It’s the default mode, as it were, among the Washington press corps.

So it’s worth asking, on the 27th day of the shutdown, why the Democrats have not yet compromised with Donald Trump on $5.7 billion for a wall on the southern border. NPR’s Mara Liasson said last week it’s because the wall stands for everything the Democratic Party hates about this president. But I’m not satisfied by that.

Benen highlighted two things. One, the wall is bad policy. It’s ineffective. It’s expensive. It’s immoral. The Democrats, he said, are invested in good policy.

More important, Benen said, is the incentive to stop Trump from stovepiping his way to victory. Trump is trying to bypass “the policymaking process—introduce an idea, send it to committee, allow for congressional debate and amendments, hold a series of legislative votes, etc.—by simply jumping to the end. He wants a wall, and he’ll hold government agencies and government workers hostage until he gets one.”

When a president makes threats outside the bounds of normal politics, he ends up incentivizing the opposition to stand firm or accept the unacceptable. Benen added:

If Democrats [cave], it will tell this president—and future presidents—that the easiest way to succeed is to embrace the politics of extortion. For the remainder of Trump’s term, no matter how long that is, he would know that he can get what he wants simply by demanding a series of non-negotiable ransoms.

Before I add my two cents, let’s take a look at things from the president’s view. Trump appears baffled by the Democrats’ resolve, according to today’s Times. “We are getting crushed!” he said after watching recent television coverage of the shutdown, wrote Maggie Haberman and Annie Karni this morning. “Why can’t we get a deal?”

Mr. Trump has told [aides] he believes over time the country will not remember the shutdown, but it will remember that he staged a fight over his insistence that the southern border be protected. He wants Democrats to come back to the table agreeing with his position on a wall, and he does not understand why they have not.

Those are my italics, and of course this president does not understand why the Democrats have not come back. As I have said, a criminally minded president is naturally going to confuse ransom with leverage. In doing so, he had created conditions in which there’s no way out save for humiliation. (Fox News and others could also lie for him, but we haven’t seen that thesis bear fruit yet.)

But even a criminally minded president can be canny. There’s an assumption informing his poor decision-making, and that assumption is that the Democrats are the party of squish politics. Lean on them, and they roll over. Yet they haven’t.

To explain why, let’s return to yesterday. Nancy Pelosi uninvited Trump from giving the State of the Union address to a joint-session of the US Congress. Yesterday, I said this was cunning and courageous, and it had a lot to do with compelling Trump to bargain. That’s true, but let’s not overlook what this truly is: a raw power move.

True, the State of Union is small beer, but even so, the only people complaining about this raw power move were the president’s media allies. No one to my knowledge—no one in the mainstream, anyway—appeared concerned by this breach in decorum. That’s unusual in Washington. The place is normally in thrall to decorum. Pelosi could have sparked a wave of both-sider articles, saying Trump is naughty, but that’s no reason for the Democrats to be naughty. “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

And yet it didn’t happen! Indeed, the opposite. There seemed to be majority praise for Pelosi’s guile and strength, but also for doing the right thing! Trump had planned to use the State of the Union address to sell his reasons for shutting down the government (for what would, by that time, be an unprecedented 39 days). But Pelosi, in taking his TV time, tried forcing him back to the table, thus justifying the breach.

Moreover, the Democrats are holding all the aces. The president’s aides are urging him to end to cave. Senate Republicans appear to be searching for good reasons to buck him. (Robert Costa reported: “Couple of senior Republican lawmakers tell me the only way this breaks open is if TSA employees stay home and Americans get furious about their flights. That’s the only out, they say. And they’re close to the WH.”)

One theory of power is that it flows until something of equal and opposite strength gets in its way. That’s the idea behind the practice of checks and balances. One source of power checks another source of power for the benefit of individual liberty and democracy. The president can’t check the Democrats in that he can’t stop them from saying no to pretty much anything he wants, be it a wall or whatever. And he can’t stop them, because he has very little political power in the current shutdown context.

So why are the Democrats refusing to compromise? I think Benen is largely right. They have strong incentives. But I can’t help thinking there’s something more elemental. They aren’t comprising with Trump, because they don’t have to.

—John Stoehr

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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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