The Republicans are led by a bigoted, incompetent president whose approval ratings are near historic lows. The Republicans in Congress embrace one unpopular policy option after another, so that all the signs pointed to a GOP bloodbath in the midterm elections.
All of this has left those of us in the pundit class with a frustrating problem. Obviously, the Democrats were going to find some way to screw this up. But no matter how much we pulled and stretched our imaginations, we couldn’t quite figure out how exactly they were going to do it.
Et Voilà! In just one short week, the Democrats have succeeded in failing with a brilliant five-part plan.
First, the Democrats embraced the always-promising Guy Fawkes option. The Republicans have tried to blow up the Congress and shut down the government several times over the past few decades. The strategy has failed every single time. The Ted Cruz shutdown of a few years ago managed to garner a pathetic 19 percent approval rating even when it was directed at a then very unpopular Obamacare.
Democrats looked at this unbroken string of self-immolation and concluded: Of course! This is what we should do! The problem, as always, is that the American people believe in democracy. They believe that if a party wants to get its way, it should, you know, win an election or two, not blow the place up just because it lost.
Second, the Democrats focused all their energies on those all-important Michel Foucault swing voters. When Democrats get all excited, they go into a hypnotic trance and think the entire country is the Middlebury College faculty lounge. The American story is a story of systemic oppression. Since the cultural discourse that privileges white hegemony is the world’s single most important problem, of course it’s worth shutting down the entire government to take a stand on DACA.
It’s not that people don’t like DACA. They do. It’s that they just don’t recognize themselves in a party that thinks it’s worth closing the government, destabilizing the economy and straining the military for it.
Third, Democrats devised a brilliant Tao Te Ching messaging strategy. The ancient Chinese master informs us, “Being and not being create each other. … Before and after follow each other.” In this way, he teaches the paradoxical infinity of ultimate truth.
The Democrats captured this same paradoxical profundity with their superb messaging over the weekend: We bravely shut down the government to save the Dreamers, even though Donald Trump is responsible for shutting down the government.
The ancient Chinese master bows in respect.
Fourth, the Democrats launched a series of devastating blitzkrieg assaults on themselves. Minutes after the Democratic leaders announced their capitulation, the entire left wing of the Democratic Party went into uproar. Kamala Harris was furious. Ezra Levin of the Indivisible Project called it “morally reprehensible and political malpractice.” I don’t even want to think about how many tears of rage must be streaming out of Cory Booker’s eyes.
But, of course, the problem was not that the leadership capitulated on Monday. It was that the Democrats talked themselves into this crazy position on Friday.
The Democrats are the party that believes in government. It doesn’t do them any good to make the federal government look dysfunctional. The Democrats are trying to defend a bunch of seats in red states. This immigration über alles strategy was never going to play well there.
Fifth, the Democrats have set themselves up brilliantly for future capitulation. Mitch McConnell had already promised Jeff Flake a DACA vote down the road. Now, the Republicans get to hold it knowing that the Democrats are not going to want to walk into another shutdown buzz saw. Stephen Miller, Trump’s immigration aide, has always wanted to trade DACA in exchange for some onerous restrictions on legal immigration. Now, it looks more likely he’s going to get them.
Democrats, when you lose a negotiation to a president who doesn’t know his own position, you’ve really impressed me.
It’s fitting that we had a government shutdown over the issue of immigration. Racially tinged conflict has been the defining feature of the Trump era. Most of the outrage has been caused by the president picking at the nation’s wounds. But by now, both parties have racial identity wings, which believe that political life is inevitably a power competition between identity groups. Both parties build their coalitions by magnifying racial identity and exploiting racial difference.
But there are some of us who are uncomfortable with the whole identity-politics drill. We believe that while racism is the central stain on American history, racial conflict is not inevitable. By reducing inequalities, by integrating daily life, we can eventually make our common humanity more salient and our racial difference less so. We believe that America has already made strides in this direction and that it’s everyone’s responsibility to make racial diversity a creative spark and not a source of permanent hostility.
One of these days some party should pay attention to us folks.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach him c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 620 8th Ave., New York, NY 10018. © 2018 NYT News Service