A new year has dawned in Washington, and this is what it looks like: a partial government shutdown in its third week; a new Congress sworn in only to sit on its hands; an emboldened House Speaker Nancy Pelosi refusing to cede an inch; and an angry President Donald Trump abandoning negotiations to take to television and make the case for crisis measures. Federal offices and museums are shuttered. Trash is piling up in national parks. Airport-security personnel are working without pay. Recipients of housing aid are wondering if they’ll soon be evicted.
But step back from the sordid details, and you could hardly get a more accurate tableau of America’s new political reality: a nonfunctioning federal government whose leaders, each insisting the stakes are too high to budge, have retreated to their corners. At the center of the drama are the two towering figures whose clash will define the next biennium: Trump and Pelosi, the yang and yin of a divided America, two powerful leaders with their credibility on the line, both convinced they hold the winning hand.
Neither can afford to lose. Trump has, after two years of distraction and delay, finally called the question of his signature policy promise, a wall on the southern border, which he insists must be a literal barrier made of concrete or steel. The wall is unpopular with the public and disdained by experts on both sides of the immigration debate. But the President is obsessed with playing to his hard-core base of supporters–and with his own self-image as a dominant alpha male–and caving would be an epic humiliation that could render him a premature lame duck and weaken his position ahead of a tough re-election campaign. Trump has been, if you will, pushed to the wall.
Pelosi takes up the first battle of her new speakership with a fired-up Democratic majority that saw the midterm results as a mandate to take on Trump and a repudiation of his stance on immigration, which he made the focus of in the election’s closing days. The San Francisco Congresswoman is legendary for her legislative savvy, having recently stamped out murmurs of dissent in her ranks. But that may be less of an asset with an outsider President who ignores traditional incentives. Trump has insisted that unpaid federal workers aren’t really bothered and even suggested he’d keep the government shuttered for months or even years. How does even the savviest negotiator deal with a President with such an unusual tolerance for conflict, uncertainty and the suffering of others?