Should Pelosi bend or should Trump?
Both Trump and McConnell are gambling that their power play with the government shutdown will pay off for the right wing agenda in the long run. They have shown no concern for the suffering their ploy is causing. | Alex Brandon/AP

The longer the government shutdown lasts, the more it gives rise to false equivalency – that both sides in the gridlock are equally to blame. The hope that talking things out will solve the problem is going to increase as the ripple effects for the whole economy grow beyond the 800,000 workers working without pay or furloughed until the government reopens.

America is the land of compromise, so it is tempting to believe that talking things out could magically solve the gridlock.

Combined with that concept are the mounting media reports of ordinary citizens, unaffected by the shutdown but empathizing with the affected families, jumping forward to offer money, food and avenues of help – even some corporate citizens.

This is the nice side of America, the pleasant promise of a group called Better Angels, which believes that if Trump voters and Trump opponents sat down and talked to each other, they would find a lot in common.  They could no longer disparage the other as the spawn of Satan.  The group’s efforts, covered by the media, have shown a lot of promise in reducing friction.

Talking to each other, sympathizing with each other are powerful sentiments in America appealing to the better angels in all of us – and also explaining why the mistreatment of migrants seeking asylum is so un-American to so many.

This peace pipe approach seemed to hold promise 20 years ago when abortion foes and folks who wanted abortion to be part of women’s rights began to meet to explore common ground.  The sides involved in these discussions did not expect conversion but better understanding that led to better treatment – and it did, for those who participated, which were fewer and farther between than the originators had hoped.

Still, the power of talk is remarkable and something humans respect, as one participant said 20 years ago:  “We expect Palestinians and Israelis to sit down together; we expect Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland to sit down together.”

But talking and changing things are different realities.  One may help the other, but a little sharp elbow now and then, intellectually speaking, also has a place.  And that brings us to Speaker of House Nancy Pelosi, who drew cheers from fellow Democrats when she reminded President Trump of her equal role under the Constitution and questioned whether he should give a State of the Nation speech January 29 in her House chambers if the government remained closed.

It did raise the specter of the traditional opening (“The State of the Nation is strong”) being changed to “The State of the Nation is closed until I get my border wall money.”  Pelosi, if you think about it, may have done Trump a favor.

But some of the reaction was interesting.  Should Pelosi have been more accommodating of the president?  Folks on the right actually think so in conversations with Better Angels and others.  Pelosi is working on a playing field where, when she tells Trump she opposes his “farshtunken” wall, which has changed from concrete to steel slats to concertina wire to briar patches or whatever, as an immoral 2,000 mile waste of money – and security experts agree – Vice President Pence immediately goes on TV and describes her as “against border security.” Which is a totally different thing.

Pelosi has an ingrained sense of timing, yet several in her camp want her to offer Trump a bill now, effective after he re-opens government, of all the things the Democrats agree with on border security — more immigration judges, hardening the security of ports of entry to attack illegal drugs, drones and technological advances, better policies for asylum seekers and selective barrier enhancements.  Yet she is dealing in a world where Trump is adamant for the wall or nothing.  She’s giving him nothing until events change his mind.  Like a smart general, she doesn’t want to waste ammunition, even as worrywarts in her own party seek a premature assault.

So what the right wing, and the more naïve believers that talk can change things, view as a refusal to compromise, Pelosi sees as a refusal to be conned or blackmailed. Hence impasse.

Her attitude has finally turned more attention to the White House yes man who prides himself of assuring the dignity of the Senate, majority leader Mitch McConnell. He knows a bill to open the government without wall funding would pass, but he won’t put it on the floor if the White House is opposed.  It’s not realistic, says even moderate Democratic senators like Jon Tester who believes the president would indeed buckle before such a bill.  McConnell is gambling that he can prevent a wholesale rebellion that would give such a bill a veto-proof majority.

As much as Democrats would like to believe his clout is gone, there have been demonstrations that it’s going to take time to bring Mitch and Donald around.   For instance, McConnell lost 11 Republicans – but surprisingly not Utah’s new senator, Mitt Romney – to a vote against sanctions relief for a Russian oligarch still under investigation by Mueller’s probe Yes, the Trump administration was seeking sanction relief! Normally that would have been a spit in the face to traditional Republican values. But if Trump by two votes could hang onto something like that, he still has some power.

And then there is attorney general designee William Barr expected to sail through confirmation, largely because he said nice things about his old buddy, Robert Mueller, and how he has no expectation of interfering in his special counsel work.

Yet Peoples World and other commentators point out that Barr actually insisted he, not Congress, controls the release of impeachment suggestions in the Mueller investigation. He outlined his adherence to regulations where he takes Mueller’s summary, which he could release to the public as is, and write his own interpretation.  Yet despite Republican claims they would protect Mueller at all costs, they are willing to look the other way on this one.

CNN’s Chris Cillizza, in a column intended to support Pelosi’s approach, spelled out what the White House is still praying for, given the public tendency to blame both houses in any gridlock.

He suggests there are voters who don’t like Trump but just want to see the government reopen. They may see Pelosi’s move to” effectively cancel the State of the Union as an unnecessary provocation,” Cillizza speculated.  That would allow Trump, “desperately in search of a life preserver in this whole mess, to seize on Pelosi’s decision as evidence that the left is trying to silence him.”

That theory seems a stretch to me. But no question the American voter for more than two years has had a fickle streak that Trump is counting on and has to cause unease among progressive forces.


Dominique Paul Noth
Dominique Paul Noth

Dominique Paul Noth for the past decade was editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and website, He now writes as an independent journalist on culture and politics.