WASHINGTON • Thursday and Friday were two of the strangest days here in a long time.
First, senators went through futile Kabuki dance votes to try to end the partial government shutdown, a day before President Donald Trump announced a Band-Aid, three-week interlude in a confrontational crisis over his promise to build a wall on the Mexican border and Democrats’ fierce opposition to it.
House Democrats noisily crowded the back of the Senate chamber during the votes Thursday. Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., gave a speech with a puzzling parable about goats and squirrels.
And when that was over, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, sprinted for the closing door of a subway car in the basement of the Capitol, arrived too late, and slammed into the door.
No, Moran joked to a gaggle of reporters, he wasn’t trying to jump onto the tracks in front of the moving train.
The reference was obvious. This partial government shutdown slammed Senate Republicans.
They were burned in December when Trump reneged on a short-term deal to keep the government open. Without funding for a Mexican border wall, Trump got blowback from right-wing commentators, and he refused to sign a bill that had passed the Senate by voice vote.
The three-week fix Trump agreed to Friday was essentially the one he turned down before forcing Senate Republicans to walk a political plank for 35 days.
The same threats and the same deep differences remain, and the president in the Rose Garden Friday again threatened a shutdown or an emergency declaration if he doesn’t get a border wall in the next three weeks.
Polls have shown the public blames Trump and his Republican allies more than Democrats for the shutdown of a quarter of the government. Frustration among Senate Republicans has been building. Their leader, Mitch McConnell, was AWOL in negotiations until the last few days.
The “world’s greatest deliberative body” looked like the world’s most irrelevant.
Pushed to the sidelines of Trump’s border-wall staredown with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Republicans tried to spin the shutdown as the fault of Senate Democrats who wouldn’t pressure Pelosi to bend.
It didn’t work, and the stories of discord inside the Republican Senate caucus mounted. Six Republican senators broke with their party on Thursday and voted for a Democratic measure to reopen the government minus wall funding.
Missouri’s new senator, Republican Josh Hawley, who voted against that deal, described the impasse as “unbelievable.”
“Shutdowns are bad politics and even worse government,” Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said. “Democrats say they’re for stronger border security. It’s time for them to get to the table. ... The president has a clear responsibility to secure the border, and if Democrats cooperate, we won’t end up in a place where this is done through declaring an emergency.”
A new Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll showed that 60 percent of respondents said Trump shouldered a great deal of blame for the shutdown; 31 percent said that of congressional Democrats; and 36 percent said that of congressional Republicans.
Since the 1990s, neither political party has “won” a government shutdown, in terms of the public favoring them in the first place. But since the Newt Gingrich-Bill Clinton shutdowns in the mid-1990s, Republicans have almost always lost them.
Post-shutdown, politicians always try to appeal to the innate goodness of Americans. Trump tried that Friday by lauding the federal workers who’d gone a month without pay.
In 1996, the damage of that shutdown still fresh, Clinton tried to get the country back on track by misattributing a quote — about America being great because Americans are good — to the 19th-century French author Alexis de Tocqueville.
In “Democracy in America,” Tocqueville made many prophetic observations about the struggle for democratic greatness. But the words “America is great, because America is good,” never appeared in the book.
In a recent column about volunteers stepping in where their government was failing, this correspondent also erroneously attributed that quote to Tocqueville.
Matt Mancini, a recently retired St. Louis University professor and longtime Tocqueville scholar, said that the Frenchman “did not believe that goodness could cause anything like worldly greatness, or that ‘goodness’ could be attributed to a whole country as such.”
Added Mancini: “One thing I can say for sure is that Tocqueville could never have dreamed that the president of the United States would shut down the government of the United States for any reason, let alone because Congress would not pass legislation he favored.”
Years after writing his book, Tocqueville became pessimistic about America’s future because of “slavery, political violence and land grabbing,” Mancini noted.
Today’s immigration challenges are as consequential. Is this United States Senate capable of leading through the pessimism?