Ground Game

Here’s why Senate Democrats caved on the shutdown in favor of longterm political gain

The vote by Senate Democrats Monday afternoon to end the shutdown and reopen the federal government may have come with a cold logic: They were beginning to overplay their hand.

Last week, it seemed to make political sense to withhold the votes necessary to avert a shutdown. Chances were that Republicans, who control the White House, the House, and the Senate, would get blamed. Polls showed that Democrats had political momentum heading towards the midterm, a sign that they would get the benefit of the doubt, even amid the headaches of a shutdown.

But when the federal government shut down at the stroke of midnight Saturday, Americans didn’t point fingers at just one person or party. Instead, they said there was enough blame to go around. A Politico/Morning Consult poll conducted Thursday and Friday showed 41 percent of Americans would blame Republicans for the shutdown, while 36 percent would blame Democrats, a result that’s fairly consistent with other polls conducted over the weekend.


One might think this poses a problem for both parties, but in the long run, it could prove far more damaging to Democrats, who head into the midterm elections with hopes of retaking the Senate majority.

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The reason is that the signature issue that drove Democrats to dig in their heels in recent days — the push for an agreement to protect young immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children — is not all that popular with swing voters.

The same Politico poll found that only 35 percent of independent voters, a key demographic, felt it was worth shutting down the government in order to save the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

A number of Senate Democrats who have tough reelection battles this year may have gotten the memo over the weekend. In the five battleground states where Trump performed strongest, voters preferred the Republican approach of keeping the government open over saving DACA, the Democrats’ own poll revealed last week.

In other words, DACA just wasn’t a priority for them, and that meant that Democrats weren’t going to win the argument, at least not with those whose votes they most need.


So that brings us to Monday afternoon, when more than half of Democratic senators, many of them in swing states, pivoted to vote in favor of reopening the government. As much as they may have believed in the cause, it just wasn’t worth it to jeopardize their chances of reelection and the opportunity to reclaim Senate control. Massachusetts’ senators, Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, it’s worth noting, voted against the measure. But in hailing from a true blue state like this one, they are afforded a level of breathing room that others don’t have. Senate control will not be decided in Massachusetts.

But for those in tough fights, or in Senate leadership, there weren’t many options. In a speech on the floor Monday afternoon, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, acknowledged being in a tight spot: “After several discussions, offers, counteroffers, the Republican leader and I have come to an arrangement. We will vote today to reopen the government and to continue negotiating a global agreement [on immigration].”

As Schumer suggested, the DACA issue is not totally dead. It will be back for a vote within weeks before the program officially expires in March.

The Democrats will face a choice in the months ahead: They can appease their base and push forward on progressive causes, or they can try to win over swing voters in states such as Indiana, West Virginia, and North Dakota, whose votes they’ll need in November. There’s always a harder third option, to convince swing voters that progressive ideas are mainstream. But to do that, they’ll need to do a better job selling them to the American people.

On Monday, the Democrats acknowledged the political reality and cut a deal. Sometimes you just have to know when to fold ’em.

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics:http://pages.email.bostonglobe.com/GroundGameSignUp