IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Why Democrats refuse to pay Trump's ransom in the shutdown fight

Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Mike Pence
House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Vice President Mike Pence, President Donald Trump, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., argue during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018, in Washington.

To hear Donald Trump tell it, resolving the government shutdown would be incredibly easy. All Democrats have to do is give the president what he wants, at which point the Republican will agree to end the standoff. Indeed, to the extent that Trump has a "plan," it's based on the most basic of tactics: he's simply waiting for his opponents to quit and meet his demands.

As the longest shutdown in American history drags on, that's not happening. Slate's Ben Mathis-Lilley expressed some amazement yesterday that congressional Democratic leaders "have not caved like a bunch of weenies."

The border wall-shutdown standoff is exactly the kind of situation in which another Democratic fold would seem to be, er, in the cards. And yet not only have [Senate Minority Leader Chuck] Schumer and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi not folded, it doesn't seem like they've even thought about folding, despite some grumbling by new House members from swing districts.It's gotten to the point where Donald Trump invited several centrist-ish rank-and-file Democrats to have lunch with him Tuesday without caucus leaders, ostensibly to woo and seduce them, but it didn't work; none of them went.

And this got me thinking: why haven't Dems given in?

The president seems to be driven by some twisted version of Richard Nixon's "madman theory." As the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne explained the other day, "The idea is that if one party to a negotiation behaves in a particularly crazy and dangerous way, the more reasonable people at the table will give in simply to end the lunacy and avoid catastrophe."

It seems likely that Trump expected this to work. So far, it hasn't, and it's worth appreciating why.

I think there are several factors playing out simultaneously. For example, congressional Dems care about the efficacy of public policy, and they realize that a giant border wall is a bad idea. It's from this starting point that Dems' spines were stiffened by multiple independent polls, each of which showed the American mainstream rejecting the president's idea and blaming Republicans for the shutdown.

Relatedly, Democratic leaders know that Democratic voters would never forgive them if they simply caved to the White House's absurd demands.

At the same time, Trump has made it easier for Dems to stick to their guns by refusing to offer them anything: the president hasn't tried to broker a deal; he's simply told Schumer and Pelosi to meet his demands in exchange for nothing.

What's more, it's not lost on Pelosi and Schumer that they're asking Republicans to adopt the exact same position Republicans held last month: support a clean spending bill that allows the government to function.

But it's against this backdrop that there also the question of incentives. Trump is trying to bypass the traditional American 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.

If Dems agree, 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.

The lesson would be unmistakable: if the president hurts just enough people, Democrats will give in to stop the suffering.

Pelosi and Schumer appear to understand that this is an untenable scenario. Trump has left them with little choice: they simply cannot fold.