I think the real takeaway from the shutdown is not going to be something involving domestic politics. Rather the real impact is going to be a negative effect on US foreign policy. What we saw over the course of the past ten days, but especially yesterday, is that it doesn’t matter what agreement one comes to with the President and/or those he’s designated to negotiate on his behalf because as soon as you walk away the negotiated outcome is overtaken by events and/or repudiated. And those events are usually someone else has spoken to the President.
Regardless of the shutdown or how long it lasts, the US’s allies, partners, peer competitors, and enemies have all had a front row seat to how the President, his administration, and his Congressional allies and proxies conduct negotiations. What they’ve learned is what everyone but the most stalwart partisans supporting the President have learned: the agreement you reach is not worth very much as it is very likely to change before it can be finalized.
Right now the US is trying to renegotiate NAFTA. Prime Minister Trudeau, who is very popular at home, and President Nieto, who isn’t, are not stupid. Nor are they blind. They’ve just gotten a very vivid display of why renegotiating NAFTA makes no sense. No matter what the President’s negotiation team agrees to may not matter as the President may well change his mind after speaking to hardline advisors on his staff or in Congress. And if he doesn’t, then those hardliners in Congress, specifically in the Senate where any new treaty will have to be ratified, could and most likely would derail the agreement.
If you’re Kim Jong Un or Ayatulluh Uzma Khameini or Bashar Assad or Xi Jinping just how enthusiastic are you going to be to negotiate a nuclear deescalation agreement (DPRK and Iran), an end to the Syrian Civil War, or to address trade imbalances when you know that the deal most likely won’t be the deal? If you’re the US’s EU trading and NATO defense partners, just how willing are you to renegotiate the EU trade agreement with the US or NATO member spending levels on collective defense when you know that it doesn’t matter what you agree to is likely to be repudiated before you can announce it to your own constituents? The answer is not very.
This budget shutdown isn’t just a continuation of the partisan shenanigans we’ve seen over the past decade. Nor is it the type of short term impasse that popped up with some regularity in the 1970s and 1980s. Short term impasses that didn’t last the weekend or only lasted a business day or two and were negotiable as they really dealt with funding level disputes and disparities. Rather, this budget shutdown is a combination of birds coming home to roost for Senator McConnell. The current shutdown is the logical outcome of a decades worth of Senator McConnell as the leader of the Republican caucus in the Senate. Every rule bent or broken. Every norm violated. Every tradition ignored if not repudiated. And now he can’t handle the fact that he has to live with the nightmare reality he’s created. It is also the result of Speaker Ryan’s fear of the nihilistic extremists in the Freedom Caucus, leading to his unwillingness to bring anything to a vote that doesn’t have their support and therefore doesn’t need any Democratic votes (the Hastert Rule). Finally, it is the result of the President’s mercurial nature, lack of core principles and values, and his susceptibility to pander and agree with whoever speaks to him last.
Domestically there is time for this shutdown to be a blip. If they work out even a short term resolution over the weekend, almost no harm will be done, other than cancellation of some military training scheduled for this weekend and some temporary duty travel that will have to be reworked on the fly come Monday or Tuesday. And maybe authorization of a couple of day’s worth of back pay. My professional assessment is that this is either going to be resolved quickly – over the weekend/at the beginning of the week – or it is going to drag on. If it is the latter this will get ugly. Very, very ugly.
The real damage in regard to foreign policy, however, has already been done regardless of how long this lasts. Our allies and partners, our peer competitors, and our enemies have all now seen how the President of the United States and his administration negotiate. The lessons have been learned. Whether it is Canada and Mexico or the DPRK and the PRC, strategies are being revised. New plans are being made. Contingencies are being put in place. And no matter what may result from talks around the negotiating table, the real losers will be Americans. Consider it the price that has to be paid for putting America First and Making America Great Again. Simply it is the MAGA tariff.
We are through the map and off the looking glass!