© 2021 WKSU
Public Radio News for Northeast Ohio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Barbershop: Political Fallout Of The Government Shutdown


Now it's time for the Barbershop. That's where we talk to interesting people about what's in the news and what's on their minds. In the chairs today - Congressman Ruben Gallego, Democrat of Arizona. He's with us from our studios at KJZZ in Tempe, Ariz. Congressman, thank you so much for joining us.

RUBEN GALLEGO: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Also with us - Michael Steele, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee. He's also the former lieutenant governor of Maryland. He was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. It's good to see you again.

MICHAEL STEELE: Good to see you, as well.

MARTIN: Thank you for coming.

STEELE: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Also with us from Washington, D.C., Maria Cardona. She's a Democratic strategist with the Dewey Square Group. Thank you so much for coming back.

MARIA CARDONA: Hey, Michel. Thank you.

MARTIN: So last week at this time, the federal shutdown had just started. And we're supposed to say partial because one agency's budget was actually approved the normal way. And then lo and behold, less than 48 hours later, it was over. And the question all week has been who blinked, and what does this foretell for future negotiations over things that matter like immigration policy, especially what happens to the so-called DREAMers who were brought here as children and health insurance for kids, the CHIP program and budget certainty for every other department? Now at this point, I'm going to assume that everybody's heard all the talking points about whose fault this all is or was. But the fact is there still is no immigration policy. There still is no long-term budget. So Maria Cardona, Democratic strategist, strategize some.


MARTIN: Is this - was this a failure of strategy of the message, of the messenger or of nerve? And there's a word in Spanish I'm tempted to use but I won't. So which is it?

CARDONA: I actually think it was a failure of the president of the United States, Michel, because at the end of the day, let's remember why we're here. The whole issue of immigration and the future of the DREAMers would not have been at stake had Donald Trump not rescinded DACA back in September. He did that with the promise of taking care of the DREAMers. And since then, he actually came to the table with Democrats and Republicans and promised a deal three times to protect the DREAMers, to increase border security.

Because let's - let's just put all the facts on the table. Democrats have always been and are today in favor of additional commonsense and strong border security. But what has happened? Every time that President Trump was presented with a bipartisan deal, he rescinded it. He would take it back. He would hear essentially the nativist anti-immigrant advisers that were whispering in his ear. And he got scared about what this would mean for his base.

MARTIN: OK. So we're going to talk a little bit more in a little minute about what this means. We're going to go to the Congressman. You voted no on the continuing resolution that ended the shutdown, which I interpret to mean that you don't agree with the agreement that was reached by the leadership. So question - same question to you - a failure of strategy, the people carrying the message or of nerve?

GALLEGO: I think it's a combination of many things. First of all, look. I voted no because at the end of the day, I think that the American public is with the Democratic Party for making sure that these DREAMers are going to be saved. I think the Republican Party and Donald Trump were all over the place. And they did reveal their hand to us, and that may be the only positive out of this - including, obviously, getting CHIP passed - is that we now know that this has nothing to do with DREAMers.

The DREAMers are essentially a hostage because they want to do wholesale immigration policy rejection in the sense they want to take immigration policy all the way back to the 1920s. And I'm talking legal immigration. So for us, it really was a eye-opener. I kind of suspected this is what was going to happen the whole time. But now it's been, I think, beneficial to the rest of the Democratic Party for them to actually recognize this. Now, there were some Senate Democrats..

MARTIN: But you're disappointed with the Democrats, there's no doubt about that, right? I mean, you've been on record as you're disappointed with your own leadership.

GALLEGO: I'm disappointed in the Senate Democrats that decided they got a little scared. You know, Schumer is only the aggregate of all these opinions, right? He's the leader of all these Democrats. I think a lot of them did lose their nerves. I think at the end of the day, you know, this is what I tell people all the time. For those voters that truly care about immigration and in quote, unquote, "stopping illegal immigration," there is no middle ground. So we needed to fight all the way for these DREAMers. And we need to continue to fight all the way for these DREAMers.

And I think what we've seen right now is that you're going to see a more invigorated Democratic Party and caucus because we now know what many of us have been saying on the other end, that the whole goal of holding these DREAMers hostage was really for a xenophobic end, which is to wholesale change immigration policy that had been part of the standard of eras of America for many years.

MARTIN: So we leave it to Michael Steele, the Republican, to be the tiebreaker here.

STEELE: (Laughter) I'm going to solve this problem.

MARTIN: Right. But you're known as an independent thinker. I think anybody who's heard your analysis over the past couple of years knows that you call it as you see it. So did the Democrats blow it as many of the pundits seemed to think or is there something we're missing?

STEELE: Yes, they did.

MARTIN: Go ahead and tell us how.

STEELE: You know where they blew it, which was actually rather surprising to me? Because the one thing Democrats, at least in the past, have been very effective at is messaging. They, you know, they can message the heck out of the civil rights issue. They can, you know, message the heck out of, you know, you know, those issues that touch on race.

On this one, it stunned me that there was no countermeasure to what was clearly a very orchestrated narrative, particularly when the Republicans threw it in - and it surprised me that they put that ad out there that was basically this sort of, you know, homage to, you know, horrific acts by those who support, you know, DREAMers. And so I think that was the first big mistake that there was no real notion of, how do we convince the American people that this is the space they want to occupy with us?

MARTIN: Here's one reason I'm also glad you're here is that you are a Republican who ran in a state that is traditionally blue and won at the top of the ticket. OK. So short term, yes, you say the Democrats blew it. In the long run - Republicans successfully framed the argument as Democrats shut the government down for illegal immigrants. Does that work in the long run?

STEELE: No. No, I don't think it does because I think the polls actually...

MARTIN: The long run being 2018.

STEELE: Yeah. The polls actually show that the majority of Americans blame the president and the party for the shutdown. So that's going to be a narrative that's there. This narrative will not play into November the way it's set up right now. So this is going to be a completely different discussion after February 8. And that's going to be the interesting thing to watch how the two parties go into February 8 and come out on the other side of it because that's going to be the ultimate narrative going into the fall.

MARTIN: Maria, what about you? And Congressman, I'll come to you next. Maria? Go ahead.

CARDONA: Sure. I mean, I think I agree with actually both Michael and and my good friend Representative Gallego because as a progressive, I was upset. I did not like this deal. But Senate Democrats really didn't like this deal either. The fact of the matter is though that we almost have zero leverage. We don't control anything. We don't control the White House. We don't control the Senate. We don't control the House. In the Senate, we had some leverage, which is what led us to the conversation about what is at stake here and what we need to fight about.

And the fact of the matter is is that, you know, as awful as the deal, was that conversation is not over. We lived to fight another day. And what we actually extracted - what Schumer extracted from the Republicans is a commitment from the leader of the Republicans in the Senate, from McConnell, to bring up immigration on the floor, which he had never committed to before. So they are on the hook for this.

MARTIN: OK. Congressman, go ahead on this because Democrats are defending a number of Senate seats in states that Donald Trump won in 2016 - that's Joe Manchin in West Virginia, Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Doug Jones was one of the other votes for - newly elected from Alabama in the special election and Heidi Heitkamp from North Dakota. So if the message comes down to protecting the Senate seats - those seats - or protecting DREAMers, which is the way it was framed, what do the Democrats say to that?

GALLEGO: Well, we need to protect DREAMers because look, DREAMers are 80 percent popular right now. So this is essentially going to be a question about the soul of the Democratic Party. If we cannot stand up for DREAMers - and forget whether we win or lose elections - if we can't stand up for 800,000 people that have lived in this country forever, that we're going to send over to, you know, and put them in very vulnerable positions, then we need to stop being a party as altogether. That is at the end of the, like, it is an existential question of this party.

And at the end of the day, I think we're going to end up winning the state. We're here for the fight. We're going to continue being in the fight. But, you know, we are not, at the same time, going to wholesale change immigration policy and immigration policy that Trump wants and what had been the dream of white nationalists forever - changing diversity lotteries, changing, you know, family reunification, all these things - we're not going to do it. We're not going to go down that road. And we have to just be willing to stare them in the face and say we're not going to go down that road.

MARTIN: The irony being that family reunification initially started to advantage immigrants from European countries. There's been quite a lot of reporting that on NPR about that.

GALLEGO: Absolutely, yes. They were trying to get more Irishmen in there. And hey, I - Irish brother in here. Don't get me wrong. But at the end of the day, they're trying to change it. And we're going to have to just stare them down and say no.

MARTIN: OK. But one expression I heard in Maryland when I was covering politics in Maryland - it's better to be a live dog than a dead lion. So, Maria Cardona, to you - so the congressman says he's taken a very firm stance here, saying that, you know, if you can't protect the DREAMers then what good are you? But as a person whose job is to get people elected, do you adhere to that? Do you agree?

CARDONA: Well, I actually think that it's a false choice. And the reason I think it's a false choice is because 90 percent of the American people agree with where the Democratic Party is on this in terms of wanting to protect the DREAMers.

MARTIN: But do they agree in those states that - you have Democratic seats where President Trump won?

CARDONA: Yes. Yes, they do. In fact, majorities of the Republican Party agree with this, majorities of Trump voters. Are you listening, President Trump? A majority of your voters have agreed that that giving the DREAMers a pathway to citizenship is actually something that we should be doing. So it is a false choice. And this is what the Democrats need to fight for. This is where their backbone needs to continue to be because they cannot let us - yeah.

MARTIN: OK. Go ahead, Michael Steele.

STEELE: I think actually they're going to get some help on that because my analysis of this has led me to believe - and I know some people probably fall out of their seat when I say this - that the president actually wants to get this done and he wants to get this done in - on terms that he knows will be offensive to his base.

And we saw the president this week lay on the table this idea of a pathway to citizenship not just for the 690,000 DREAMers but for up to 1.8 million immigrants. And that's a huge step. And where that leads me to believe is he's willing to sacrifice that Freedom Caucus in the House, that 30-plus membership that will not be with him. His play right now is to get Nancy Pelosi to get those Democrats to the table in the House to complement the effort in the Senate. And that's how this gets done.

MARTIN: Can you tell me how? We only have about half a minute left. Can you tell me what assures you of that? Why do you say that? Because one of the criticisms of him is that you can't trust him as a negotiator.

STEELE: Because the president would not have put that - knowing how virulent his base would be about a pathway to citizenship, he would not put that on the table.

GALLEGO: Except, with all due respect to Mr. Steele, it was actually Stephen Miller that put it out. And we had heard this. We have heard about this rumor of a negotiation before. At the end of the day, what they want to do is cut legal immigration by 50 percent. And they want to use the DREAMers as hostage. We're not going to play that game. It's not going to happen. They need to give up that dream and actually, truly come to good deals.

MARTIN: We have to leave it there for now. Thank you all so much for a spirited but respectful conversation which we don't always have. That's Congressman Ruben Gallego, Democrat of Arizona; Maria Cardona, Democratic strategist; Michael Steele, former chair of the Republican National Committee, former lieutenant governor of Maryland. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

CARDONA: Thank you.

STEELE: Thank you.

GALLEGO: Thank you, guys. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.