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U.S. Politics Government shutdown is the weapon of choice in U.S. politics — and there will be blowback

It’s the Democrats’ fault. No, it’s the Republicans’. It’s the President and his fanatical right-wing base who caused this. No, it’s the liberals and their leftist zealots who are to blame.

These imprecations – hurled across the blue-carpeted chambers of Congress and polished in the green rooms of cable television while most Americans are preparing for their holiday rituals – are all correct, and they are all incorrect. But there’s something – a very big thing – that’s not right in the country’s politics, and it’s the American political class that has foisted a great wrong on the American people.

The government shutdown in the United States is really a shutdown of the vital organs of the country’s body politic.

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There have been government shutdowns in the past, to be sure. But since the Clinton years of the mid-1990s, these episodes have progressed from mere technical glitches in the mechanics of American politics to serious breakdowns in the way American politics are conducted. They have been transformed from irritations affecting the functions of government to indications of grave dysfunction of government itself.

In becoming weaponized, government shutdowns such as the one that will curtail the operations of much of the U.S. government beyond Boxing Day have become leading indicators of structural weaknesses in American politics.

Indeed, this holiday hiatus in the conduct of the basic tasks of government is the ultimate example of using the functions of government to alter the way government operates.

There is a fundamental difference between this 21st-century conflict and the most colourful governmental shutdown of the late 20th-century, when a budget dispute between president Bill Clinton, a Democrat from Arkansas, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican from Georgia, kept government shuttered for more than three weeks.

In retrospect, that shutdown seems almost playful, with the two principal political figures of the Old Confederacy sparring over, among other areas, government spending levels and health-care issues, along with the question of why the Speaker was forced to exit Air Force One by the back ramp while the former president disembarked at the front after the two travelled to the funeral of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

The current dispute is of an entirely separate character, with the principals sparring over fundamental American principles, especially immigration.

U.S. President Donald Trump won’t sign a spending bill that doesn’t include funding for perhaps the leading element of his 2016 campaign appeal, a wall at the country’s border with Mexico. Democratic leaders Senator Chuck Schumer of New York and Representative Nancy Pelosi of California steadfastly oppose the wall. The President is wagering that his political base will be fortified by his stance. The Democrats are wagering that his political standing will be undermined by his insistence.

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The Democratic leaders are characterizing this showdown as a “Trump shutdown.” Mr. Trump is blaming “Chuck and Nancy” and sending out fundraising e-mails.

Though most Americans paused at nightfall Friday for holiday preparations and revelry that will last through Christmas on Tuesday, the political wars in Washington continued apace.

But it was clear as Christmas Eve approached that there was considerable potential for substantial political damage in this confrontation, being conducted only days from the end of Republican dominance of both the executive and legislative branches of the government. The Democrats take over the House of Representatives on Jan. 3. Ms. Pelosi, who at noon that day will reprise her role as Speaker, has pledged the shutdown will end shortly thereafter – a vow intended to highlight the Republicans’ blame for this contretemps.

It was the Republicans who suffered most from the celebrated 1995 shutdown showdown, with Mr. Gingrich portrayed as a “cry baby” – the word used on a fabled tabloid cover of the New York Daily News that characterized the Georgian as an ill-tempered infant and showed a cartoon of him holding a bottle of formula and bawling. Mr. Clinton’s approval ratings soared to new heights after the episode.

In this fresh confrontation, the reverse is possible, for in the run-up to this episode Mr. Trump said, “I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down.” In this case, the danger to the Republicans may be less for policy reasons, though they are significant, than for party unity, which has been fragile since Mr. Trump’s ascendancy.

The President’s insistence on appealing at this juncture to his base – “One thing has always kept me motivated to fight back and that’s you, Friend,” he wrote to supporters Saturday night – troubles some Republican leaders, who are already worried about distressing gyrations in the financial markets, discomfited by the President’s sudden and startling decision to withdraw American troops from Syria and Afghanistan, and concerned about the implications for the 2020 presidential and congressional elections.

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His foreign-policy decisions affecting those troubled lands and in established international organizations represent major departures both from the bipartisan national-security consensus and from decades-old Republican orthodoxy. His posture with trade allies such as Canada and with trade adversaries such as China have discomfited Republicans and business interests who have cultivated a free-trade philosophy since the end of Second World War.

Moreover, Republicans worry this government shutdown, if portrayed as the latest rash impulse of a president who is governed by instinct, could further fracture the party – and further endanger the GOP’s prospects in the post-Trump era.

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