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Who Thought the Shutdown Was a Good Idea?

Trump's shutdown disaster has many fathers.
January 27, 2019
Who Thought the Shutdown Was a Good Idea?
(Illustration by Hannah Yoest / photo credit: GettyImages)

On Friday, President Trump’s shutdown-for-the-wall strategy collapsed rather dramatically. “Trump’s capitulation to Democrats marked a humiliating low point in a polarizing presidency,” noted the Washington Post, “and sparked an immediate backlash among some conservative allies, who cast him as a wimp.”

In retrospect, Trump’s decision to listen to the loudest voices in the conservative media was a massive miscalculation which gave him the worst of both worlds. His shutdown alienated moderates and independents and then his capitulation disillusioned elements of his base. And you didn’t need a crystal ball to see that this would happen—you could see the giant sour spot miles away.

Who could possibly have thought this was a good idea? Who thought Trump was playing a winning hand and urged him on from one misstep to another?

For the moment, let’s leave aside the obvious suspects on Fox News and the obsessive turd polishers (to borrow Jonah Goldberg’s term) at American Greatness and focus on the people who are supposed to be analysts first and cheerleaders second.

Rush Limbaugh has always fancied himself as a galaxy brain. But he helped goad Trump into the shutdown and then encouraged the president to hang tough, even as the hard data became impossible to ignore. As recently as last week, when Trump’s poll numbers were hemorrhaging, Limbaugh began his show with a blast of bravado:

I’m just gonna tell you, folks, if President Trump can hang in there, if he can hang in there and not go wobbly, he can win this. It’s gonna be a few more weeks. There are gonna be a lot of risks. There are gonna be a lot of temptations to drop the ball and cave. I don’t mean cave, there’s gonna be a lot of temptation to make a deal. But he can win this if he just hangs in there.

So either El Rushbo was dead wrong or Trump is a wobbly wuss. Dittoheads can take their pick.

Then there were the obligatory references to Trump’s occult skills at 3-D chess. After Speaker Nancy Pelosi shut down Trump’s SOTU, David Brody, who reports for CBN, tweeted that “she’s in for a rude awakening. Pelosi is playing checkers, trump is playing chess.

But willfully stupid takes of this sort were not confined to the Trumpist right’s lumpenproletariat.

Here’s a quick rundown on some of the best of the worst (or is it worst of the best?):

Henry Olsen

Last seen denouncing Mitt Romney for saying that Republicans should care about character, Olsen, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center returned to the pages of the Washington Post on January 3 to assure readers that “Trump won’t lose in a long shutdown.”

“Common wisdom says the longer this lasts, the worse the politics will get for President Trump,” Olsen wrote. ”I disagree. Trump isn’t likely to suffer politically because he’s not doing anything his supporters find objectionable.” In fact, Olsen predicted, the Democrats “will increasingly bear some political responsibility for ending the crisis.”

As a result, Olsen predicted that “for Trump, a continued shutdown is a political win no matter what the outcome.”

And this was was Olsen doubling-down after writing a Post piece in December calling the shutdown a good gamble for the president. “Both history and current politics are on Trump’s side in this standoff,” Olsen confidently predicted. “[A]s a political matter, it is highly unlikely to hurt either President Trump or the Republican Party.

Marc Thiessen

The former speechwriter for George W. Bush also argued that the shutdown was more Trump wizardry.

On Fox News, Thiessen insisted that “The president can actually win this fight if he continues to portray himself as the person who is willing to compromise.” Then, after the president’s obviously ineffectual speech from the Oval Office, Thiessen maintained that Trump had won the night:

Until now, Trump has owned the 18-day government shutdown that prompted this address, because he’s the one who started it. But if Democrats continue to attack him, and won’t entertain any compromise, soon the shutdown will be all theirs — because they’re the ones who have refused to end it.

After Trump’s second attempt to talk publicly about the shutdown—as everyone else saw the collapse coming—Thiessen was either smelling, or selling, victory again:

If Trump continues on this path, the American people will eventually come to realize it. Polls show that the vast majority of voters want both sides to compromise. On Saturday, Trump openly embraced compromise. The Democrats rejected it. Their position is irresponsible and unsustainable. Time is on the president’s side.

Three days after writing that, Trump folded like a cheap lawn chair.

Hugh Hewitt

You knew he’d be here, didn’t you?

After Trump reversed himself under pressure from talk radio hosts, Hewitt argued that it was a good idea for Trump to pay attention to folks like Limbaugh. Claiming that Limbaugh had 20 million listeners, Hewitt noted that “20 million listeners is four or five times as large as any cable show. So the president is not ill-advised to take into account whatever Rush is channeling.”

Hewitt’s special talent is detecting genius even in the most obvious mistakes. The day after the meeting in the Oval Office, when Trump publicly declared that he would be happy to own the shutdown, Hewitt insisted that all the pundits were wrong in predicting that this was a blunder. Why were they wrong? Hewitt didn’t actually have a reason. He was just using “the Beltway” as a negative indicator:

What we do know is the Beltway is almost 100 percent convinced that Trump can’t win this showdown on border security. Just like they were convinced he would lose 25 months ago. Just as elites in Britain were convinced that Brexit would not pass, and then that a “Hard Brexit” was impossible. Just as Eurocrats and Time magazine were convinced French President Emmanuel Macron was the man of the moment. Perhaps the D.C. analysts should reconsider their convictions.

Perhaps Hewitt should reconsider his own willingness to admire the emperor’s fine new clothes. Either that or admit that he’s in the business of stroking his audience, not doing serious analysis.

Bill O’Reilly

Okay O’Reilly doesn’t really belong here, but I can’t resist noting O’Reilly’s venture into the Twilight Spin Zone.

After Trump’s cave on Friday, O’Reilly tweeted:

Odds are that won’t age well, either.

Charlie Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.