If Donald Trump were a better politician, this all could have been avoided.
I'm not speaking of his administration's breathtaking incompetence or his inability to grasp even the basic points of actual governance. The last two years have demonstrated an avalanche of ineptitude from tip to stern. Rather, I speak of the thing the president so often likes to brag about: his actual political savvy.
In Trump's narrative, he won an election that no one else could have, a victory so incredible that its only explanation is his superior instincts and intellect. And it's true that his election over Hillary Clinton was a stunning though marginal upset, given the polling and the state of the economy and (much of) the media's certainty that he would lose. But, in hindsight, it's also true that he got extraordinarily lucky: He won by a handful of votes across three key Midwestern states while losing the popular vote; he faced an almost-equally disliked opponent dogged by the FBI over email server management; he was aided by a Russian regime allegedly working closely with high-ranking elements of his campaign.
Yet instead of recognizing that he hit an inside straight, Trump believed his own bullshit – that he was smarter than everyone else, that he had tapped into a reservoir of real-American antipathy toward the elites, that people really wanted his brand of simple-minded faux-populism: building the wall and banning immigrants and burning more coal and isolating ourselves in the name of nationalism. But he was spectacularly bad at it. Even with Republican control of both chambers of Congress, he passed but one major law – a tax cut for the rich that did little more than explode the deficit and offer short-term stimulus to an already-growing economy.
He didn't replace Obamacare. He didn't build the wall. He couldn't keep his team rowing in the same direction. Sure, he rolled back some of President Obama's environmental and civil and labor rights initiatives through executive action, and he pushed through a number of judges, including two Supreme Court justices, largely thanks to Mitch McConnell's undying cynicism and willingness to ditch the inconvenient filibuster. But for two years, he failed to notch legislative victories or to persuade the country that he was doing a good job, even with a good economy.
Come November, he got his ass kicked. The wall he had made a centerpiece of his campaign – that unprecedentedly brilliant campaign – was slipping away. His base was restive. So he made his stand. No wall, no government funding.
And he got his ass kicked again.
The bill Trump signed Friday night to reopen the government for three weeks got him nothing. The 35-day shutdown was an unqualified disaster. Eight hundred thousand federal workers suffered, the public blamed him, and Democrats held firm. The more he made his case to the American people, the more his approval ratings fell. On Thursday, a bill to fund the wall failed in the GOP-led Senate; on Friday morning, so many unpaid air-traffic controllers had called in sick that airports were seeing huge delays.
Trump got one small fig leaf from the Democrats – a committee to study border security ahead of the next budget deadline. On Saturday, amid a backlash from his demoralized base – Ann Coulter even called him a wimp on Twitter – Trump returned to petulant defiance, declaring that he'd get his wall in three weeks, for real this time.
Except he won't, and he might be the only one who doesn't realize it. Nancy Pelosi always knew she wasn't playing against the varsity; now Trump's weakness has been put on full display. Democrats have no incentive to give in. Republicans have no way to force them to. If the government shuts down again, Trump will get blamed again. If he funds the government without a wall, his supporters will think he's gone beta.
In other words, Pelosi's got him by the short hairs. That's how the next two years are going to go: She's better at this game than he is, but his ego's too big to realize it. So he'll fall for every trap she sets.
As I see it, Trump has two possible outs: One, the Democrats agree to fund a smidgen of additional border fencing, and Trump tries to spin it as a win; or two, he declares a national emergency and tries to circumvent Congress to build the wall – which might be a hard sell to a federal judge, considering that he's publicly dithered over declaring an emergency for two months, which undercuts the very notion of an actual emergency.
Or the government shuts down, and he repeats this self-defeating exercise all over again.
In the meantime, Trump gave Pelosi a perfect excuse to delay something he very much needs: the State of the Union address, originally scheduled for Tuesday night, its presidential pomp and circumstance allowing Trump to momentarily rise above his myriad troubles (hello, Roger Stone!) and his 6 a.m. toilet tweets and reassert himself after his party's midterm shellacking.
But he's not going to get it – at least not yet. Not for a couple of days or a week. Not until Nancy Pelosi decides to let him back into her house.