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Commentary: Why the shutdown will be a win for Trump

Regardless of the outcome, the "Great Government Shutdown of 2018" will go down as a win for President Trump. Why? Because it's yet another "why the hell not" moment from Washington, D.C.

During the 2016 primaries I was a radio talk host in Atlanta, Georgia—a conservative host on a conservative station in a conservative state.  I was surprised by the amount of support a big-city, liberal-leaning TV star like Donald Trump had among people I knew were traditional conservatives who in the past would never support someone with Trump's (ahem) "troubling" background.

One of them, a lifelong Republican who by his own admission "would be a Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio man" explained his support for Trump over the rest of the GOP field by listing a litany of letdowns from the Republican party (immigration, foreign interventions) and instances of gross incompetence by the government in general—"they can't pay the bills, can't balance the budget, can't fix Obamacare," and so on.

"How can it get worse?" he asked rhetorically. "So, sure, I'm voting for Trump. Why the hell not?"

The president's opponents believe that his first year is the answer to the question "Why not?" Look at the government shutdown, they say.

When Eric Trump said over the weekend that the shutdown was "good for us," he was right, though not in the partisan sense he intended. They're not good for Republicans, but they are good for "drain the swamp" outsiders like Eric's dad.

As CBS News noted, "Government shutdowns are unusual, but they're not unheard of." 

Congress shut down the government for almost two weeks in 2013—part of an astonishing string of budget battles that involved the Democratic-controlled Senate simply refusing to pass a budget for four years—even in 2009-10 when Democrats had total control of Congress. In 2012, Harry Reid's Senate voted down President Obama's budget proposal 97-0(!) The most basic task of Congress is collecting taxes and funding the government, and it's been an unseemly mess for at least a decade.

So while Republicans shout about the #SchumerShutdown and Democrats taunt the GOP with #TrumpShutdown, to many Americans it looks like the same old story: In a city where partisanship is more important than leadership, Democrats and Republicans can't make Washington work.

And the people may be onto something.  According to the "Vote View" project founded by Carnegie-Mellon University, party-line voting by members of Congress is at the highest level in more than a century. It's hard to believe, but as recently as the 1970s, members of Congress only voted with their party an average of 60 percent of the time. Today that number is 90 percent.

And so, for example, even after the hyper-partisan controversy of the "hanging chad" 2000 election, President George W. Bush's 2001 tax plan received a bipartisan 58-33 vote in the senate thanks to the support of 12 Democrats (and opposition of GOP Sen. John McCain.) 

Sixteen years later, the GOP's tax cut failed to receive a single Democratic vote in the House or Senate.

There's an easy case to make for the argument that Trump makes it harder for Democrats to cross the aisle and support him.  Attacking "Dicky Durbin" and "Cryin' Chuck Schumer" is hardly a smart strategy for getting the two highest-ranking Senate Democrats to cooperate. However, as the VoteView website notes, "Donald Trump will be the third consecutive President who is widely disliked by members of the opposite Party."

Yes, our political polarization is worse than it's ever been. But it's been bad for years and showed no signs of improving no matter which candidate won the White House in 2016. So why not cast a "Why the hell not?" ballot.

Americans in general—and the blue-collar voters in Rust Belt states who voted Obama in 2008 and Trump in 2016 in particular--have a credible case that their confidence in the system and its two parties was misplaced.  They voted for change in 2008. The one major change, Obamacare, was unpopular (its polls were underwater the entire Obama presidency) and poorly implemented.  Voters voted for change again in 2010 and again in 2014, but generally got more of the same.

So why not cast a vote against the system itself by voting for a candidate completely outside it? 

And if you did cast a vote against the insider politics and general incompetence of Washington's political class, doesn't yet another government shutdown—particularly one as seemingly unnecessary as this one—prove your point?  

Yes, Trump opponents can argue that any failure on his watch is a Trump failure. And Trump's own confusing tweets and self-contradictory messaging made a shutdown more likely in the waning days.

But the meta-message of the Trump movement is that Washington just doesn't work, that the swamp needs to be drained, that both parties are more interested in politics than people. And every congressional failure, from the Obamacare repeal fiasco to the #DACA shutdown, feeds that overarching message.

During the 2016 campaign, every time it appeared Trump's campaign fortunes were about to collapse, he was able to turn the conversation to the Washington political class and his argument that they weren't getting the job done for the American people.  It would be just enough to keep him in the race and eventually win an Electoral College victory.

Government shutdowns are just the sort of "more of the same" "why the hell not" moments that a politician like Donald Trump needs to stay in the game.

  • Michael Graham

    CBSN contributor Michael Graham is a conservative columnist for the Boston Herald.