The 116th Congress has been sworn in with a historic number of women and people of color sent to Washington, D.C, by voters in November’s midterm elections, which gave control of the House of Representatives to the Democrats.
However, there is no honeymoon period for the newly empowered Democrats. The party is behind the eight ball in the blame game over the two-week-long partial government shutdown, according to public affairs professionals. The sticking point: President Donald Trump’s proposed $5.6 billion wall on the U.S. border with Mexico.
The newly emboldened Democrats include Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who reclaimed the gravel she first held in 2009 when she became the first female speaker. She is urging Trump to endorse the new House’s first measures to open all government without funding for the wall. However, all evidence points to the bill being dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Experts say both parties are digging their heels in for a protracted battle, with each side hoping to claim victory with their supporters when the government does fully reopen.
Gene Grabowski, partner at kglobal, contends that "Trump has benefitted more than the leaders in Congress in the public relations struggle" in large part because the shutdown has affected relatively few Americans.
"Social Security checks are still going out, Medicare and Medicaid payments continue, the military stays on duty, and essential government employees remain on the job," he says. "Federal employees, most of whom didn’t vote for Trump, and visitors to national parks are generally the only ones feeling pain from the president’s stance...Meanwhile, to his base of supporters, the president appears to be hanging tough."
However, others note that Trump has blown chances to get the upper hand, first in a televised December 11 Oval Office negotiation with Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and Vice President Mike Pence. During the meeting, the commander-in-chief said he would be "proud to shut down the government for border security" and that he wouldn’t blame the Democrats if a spending deal wasn’t reached.
"For the Democrats, this should be a one-two punch. The president accepted blame and he is withholding government services from Americans over a border wall that won’t work," says KayAnn Schoeneman, who leads Ketchum’s D.C. marketplace and public affairs team.
She adds that Trump also missed an opportunity when the shutdown began just before Christmas when he tweeted, "I am all alone (poor me) in the White House waiting for the Democrats to come back and make a deal on desperately needed border security."
Instead of just tweeting, "the president could have put pressure on Democrats by holding negotiations and press conferences and potentially showing empty seats at the table," says Schoeneman. "The risk he ran, of course, is Democrats showing up and calling his bluff."
"Either way, the visual storytelling would have had a larger impact than tweets," she adds. "Instead, the Democrats are letting the president talk himself into a corner with press conferences and promises he may not be able to deliver for his base."
Nick DeLuca, senior partner at FleishmanHillard Fishburn, says the "Democrats constantly need to remind voters of Trump's initial commitment and that he said it hundreds of times on the campaign trail."
"Democrats need to continue to remind people that the president insisted that Mexico was going to pay for this proposed border wall and that the U.S. government is shut down because the Democratic Party is essentially saying, 'You can't make American taxpayers pay for this. Keep your promise.'"
DeLuca says that although the Democrats appear to be in a better position overall, as Trump mistakenly took ownership of the shutdown at the outset, he adds that "it is hard to predict who will 'win' or come out on top of this standoff. The partisan public is so tribal now, facts and rational argument don’t always triumph these days."
"No matter what happens, Trump will say he won, and people who support him will believe that because he says he is ‘on their team,’ protecting them," he adds.
Yet like Grabowski, Schoeneman contends the Republicans "can hold out longer, in terms of pressure from their constituents, than Democrats at this point." Funding for areas that Trump’s core base cares most about, such as defense spending, is in place.
Meanwhile, the Democrats are expected to bring to the floor legislation on gun control, immigration reform, and climate change.
Language matters more than ever
Lisa Osborne Ross, president of Edelman in Washington, D.C., says there is an interesting element to this shutdown comms battle: the importance of word choice. Polls show that most Americans support stronger border security. The Democrats have also voted in the past to authorize border infrastructure. It is the word "wall" that has made the issue so polarizing.
"The POTUS' brand is defined with and by the word, and for the sake of pride and core constituency, which he needs more than ever with the [Special Counsel Robert] Mueller probe closing in, will not let it go," says Ross. "The Democrats, particularly new and empowered ones, can’t and won’t endorse the word because it looks like they’d be capitulating. Their brand is ‘There’s a new sheriff in town.’"
Asked if she would give Trump $1 for a wall to reopen the government, Pelosi said on Thursday, "The fact is a wall is an immorality. It’s not who we are as a nation." Meanwhile, at a surprise White House news briefing where he took no questions from media, Trump said, "Without a wall you can not have border security...It won’t work." He also posted a video on Twitter of what appeared to be migrants trying to rush the U.S. border with the captions "drugs, "crime," and "crisis at the border."
"It’s the classic case of substance of disagreement not being far apart, but message and messengers on different planets," Ross says. "I’m struggling to think of another time in recent history when language, narrative, the telling of story, and the storyteller has mattered more."
This story was updated on January 4 with comment from DeLuca.