Democrats blink first in shutdown row

The Democrats and Republicans in Washington are still bickering over who deserves the blame for the three-day government shutdown that ended last Monday. The Democrats blinked first. They had demanded an explicit pledge to protect the 690,000 young, undocumented migrants who were granted temporary legal status under Barack Obama’s 2012 Deferred action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) programme.

In the end, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer accepted a mere verbal agreement that the Senate would take action on immigration, along with a funding extension for the Children’s Health Insurance Plan, says Jennifer Epstein on Bloomberg. The Senate subsequently voted to fund the government until 8 February.
That only gives the parties a fortnight to agree on spending and immigration before another shutdown.

Distributing the blame

Donald Trump was swift to claim victory, tweeting “Big win for Republicans as Democrats cave on Shutdown”. Meanwhile, Schumer was widely criticised by liberal party colleagues for being too accommodating. But how do voters see it? Most Americans believe that it is “unacceptable” for the president or members of Congress to threaten a shutdown (during which 40% of the government workforce is placed on unpaid leave) to achieve their goals, even though a majority support DACA, the issue at the centre of the standoff, says Rachel Wolfe on Vox.

The most recent polls suggest that Republicans are blaming Democrats and Democrats are blaming Republicans, although generally voters tend reflexively to blame whoever is in charge, which in this case is very much the Republicans, who control all three branches of the government.

Democrats are certainly eager to spin the “short-term blame game into a longer-term message”, says Louis Nelson on Politico, and even if it doesn’t knock confidence in the GOP, it may at least distract from their “successful tax reform”. Nevertheless, the effect of a shutdown can be “hard to predict”. During the last one in 2013, the Republicans were widely expected to take a heavy hit. Instead, they went on to win the Senate and the largest House majority since the Hoover presidency.

Will it affect the elections?

What both parties are most worried about is the effect that this episode will have on their popularity ahead of mid-term elections in November. But everyone will have forgotten about the shutdown by then, according to Eric Levitz in New York magazine. After all, just one month before the 2016 presidential election, Americans heard Donald Trump brag about how he could “get away with grabbing women by their vaginas without seeking consent”.

Not only is the evidence for the electoral effect of government shutdowns “razor-thin”, given the speed of our news cycle, but it’s also hard to imagine anyone remembering a “temporary suspension of non-essential government services” in ten months’ time.


Turkey-US relations reach boiling point

A new flashpoint has emerged in the Middle East. Turkish forces have attacked the northern Syrian district of Afrin, an area under the control of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its affiliated fighting force, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The YPG has been helping the US in the fight against Islamic State, and has links with the terrorist organisation the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK,) which has long been calling for an independent Kurdish state within Turkey.

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who, unlike the US, makes no distinction between the YPG and the PKK, has “long fumed” over America’s decision  to ally itself with YPG,  says Raf Sanchez in The Daily Telegraph. Anger “reached boiling point” last week  after US officials announced they were helping the YPG  to train a 30,000 strong “border force” to patrol the Syrian side of the Turkish border.

US secretary of state Rex Tillerson tried to defuse the situation by saying the use of the phrase “border force” was a mistake, but his words seem to have had little effect. According to the US, the Syrian Kurds are likely to “serve as the backbone of the allied forces on the ground in Syria for months to come”, says Mark Landler in The New York Times. US Special Operations troops are training and equipping Kurdish forces that control the eastern Syrian city of Manbij, and there are worrying signs that this may be the “ultimate target” of the Turkish operation. This “could bring its forces into direct conflict with the Americans, with unpredictable results”.

An increasingly isolated Erdogan may be willing to risk it, says Hannah Lucinda Smith in The Times. Domestic antipathy towards the YPG is widespread and he knows that “preventing the formation of a Kurdish state along the border would win him kudos at home”.