Donald Trump’s decision to reopen the federal government after a record 35 days of shutdown has been seen almost universally as a defeat for his bully-pulpit approach to politics. For the first time since the United States’ midterm elections in November, the White House was forced to confront head-on a changed political landscape, in which the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives has the power to block his agenda.
But while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her fellow Democrats will rightly consider checking Trump an achievement in itself, those concerned about the wellbeing of democratic institutions should realise that the real challenge still lies ahead. A bipartisan committee drawn from the House and the Senate has been set up to broker an agreement on the Mexican border issue in order to keep the government open beyond February 15, and as the President himself has pointed out, “21 days goes very quickly”.
On Wednesday Australian time, Trump will deliver his dramatically postponed State of the Union address, in which he is expected to call for Congress to “bridge old divisions … [and] build new coalitions”, though it is also widely anticipated that he might declare a state of emergency on the southern border, contradicting himself and negating the input of Congress entirely.
One of the reasons Trump was elected in 2016 was a widespread belief among voters that when it cames to effectively addressing national issues – immigration prominent among them – Congress was no longer fit for purpose. The recently mooted presidential candidacy of former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, another putative “saviour” from outside the system, is a further sign of this problem. Similar crises of confidence in the legislature can be seen in democracies from Westminster to Canberra, and in many nations it has given rise to calls for “strong” leadership that tends towards authoritarianism. As in so many political matters, the nations of the world look to the US for their cues.Advertisement
The onus, therefore, is on Democrats and Republicans to forge a position that both sides can confidently defend in public and recommend to Trump. Should February 15 arrive without such a deal, and with the President still peddling his vision of a nation under threat, the very idea of parliamentary politics will be severely damaged.
“The President’s commitment is to defend the nation, and he will do it either with or without Congress,” the White House’s acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney told Fox News Sunday just after the government reopened. Those Republicans in Congress who have argued that declaring an emergency would set a terrible precedent that might be abused by future administrations have surely been asleep for the past two years, as Trump trashed one political and constitutional precedent after another in the name of “disruption” and “draining the swamp”. Should he seek to decouple his presidency from Congress altogether, it will fall to those same Republicans to stand up for the importance of their own role in shaping policy, and the most basic principles of America’s democracy.