Opinion

Michael A. Cohen

Shutdown lessons: Republicans are shameless, Democrats brainless

What has the fourth government shutdown in the past 25 years shown us? That Republicans have no shame and Democrats have no courage or brains.

The former point is the least contestable. Since the shutdown began last Friday, Republicans have shamelessly used it as an opportunity to attack Democrats for allegedly putting the interests of immigrants ahead of ’mericans.

This weekend, for example, President Trump’s reelection campaign ran an ad claiming that Democrats, who are demanding protections for undocumented immigrants brought to America as children (the so-called Dreamers) and supposedly won’t agree to steps for tightening border security, “will be complicit in every murder committed by illegal immigrants.”

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Trump himself doubled down on this argument, tweeting that “Republicans are fighting for our Military and Safety at the Border” while “the Dems just want illegal immigrants to pour into our nation unchecked.”

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As has been the case since Trump announced his presidential candidacy more than two and a half years ago, the sins of a handful of criminals are being used to besmirch millions of law-abiding immigrants. Indeed, Trump and his allies in Congress have quite ostentatiously sought to pit DACA recipients against other vulnerable Americans.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell tweeted on Friday that “Democrats have a choice to make” over a graphic that on the one side had “CHIP [the Children’s Health Insurance Plan] 8.9 million recipients” and on the other “DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] 690,000 Recipients.”

Other Republicans have blasted Democrats for using the allegedly extraneous DACA issue to “hold Americans hostage,” and deny paychecks to “America’s fighting men and women.”

On Monday, Democrats blinked.

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For all the debate in Washington over who is to blame for the government shutdown — and to be clear: it’s largely the fault of Republicans — Democrats were never completely faultless.

They chose to make DACA their proverbial line in the sand. That is, until the poll numbers showed that voters were starting to blame them — whereupon they lost their nerve and sought an exit ramp.

Red state Democrats were worried that, 10 months from now, voters in their states would blame them for shutting down the government to protect undocumented immigrants. Other Democrats wavered as well, agreeing to a three-week continuing resolution and taking Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s word that they can fight over immigration between now and then. If there’s no deal in three weeks, Democrats can shut down the government then, or so the argument goes.

Now, to be sure, Democrats did get an important win today — extending funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which will help 9 million Americans who rely on the program. But at the same time they’ve surrendered whatever leverage they had to get a deal on DACA. Today, a plurality blame Republicans for the shutdown, though the numbers have tightened. In three weeks, if McConnell goes back on his word, and if there is no deal on DACA, Democrats will be faced with a stark choice — shut the government down specifically over the DACA issue or surrender again.

If they choose that route, they will have erased all ambiguity about why the shutdown is occurring. Quite simply, it’s a lot easier to hold the line on a shutdown when the issue is murky as to why it happened; it’s a lot harder to do it proactively and on an issue in which plenty of red-state Democrats have already shown a disinclination to see the fight to the end.

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If you think those Democrats are going to stick to their guns after backing down today, I might have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you. Democrats have limited leverage to force Republicans to make a deal on DACA. With today’s deal they’ve simply thrown that leverage away — and in the process alienated their base of voters, who will almost certainly view today’s events as a sellout to the eminently untrustworthy Mitch McConnell.

On the bright side, at least Democrats can say they aren’t as shameless and dishonest as Republicans. That and a few bucks will get you a ride on the subway, but not much else.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.