The government shutdown, which as of Friday is tied for the longest in history, may have been brought about by the president's demand for more than $5 billion in funding for his border wall that neither the new Democratic majority in the House nor members of his own party in Congress over the past two years have been willing to allocate.
But the standoff is now ultimately about something else: Which side will most benefit and which will be most harmed by the shutdown. Everything each party says and does at this point is motivated by the need to win the battle over public opinion.
In this fight, the Democrats would seem to have the edge. Strong support for the wall is limited to the minority of Americans who constitute the president's base, he made things politically difficult for himself by proposing preposterously on the campaign trail that Mexico would pay for the wall, and very few people appear to have been persuaded by his claim that the country faces a "national security crisis" on the southern border.
But that doesn't mean the Democrats won't blow it.
The surest way for them to do so would be to keep on their present path of emphasizing that the government must be reopened because of how the shutdown is hurting federal workers.
Yes, hundreds of thousands of workers who are furloughed without pay or forced to work with their paychecks withheld until the government officially reopens for business are suffering, as are the businesses that cater to them in Washington, D.C., and around the country. Many of these employees live paycheck to paycheck and so will soon run out of money to pay rent and buy food. That's awful. I feel for them — as do, I'm sure, many millions of Americans. It is grossly unfair that these men and women and their families will have to endure hardship because a handful of right-wing media rabble-rousers goaded the president into picking a fight.
But that doesn't mean Democrats should be emphasizing the struggles of federal employees in their showdown with Republicans over the shutdown.
That's the case despite the fact, emphasized by some Democratic strategists, that there are lots of federal workers in Republican districts. That might be true, but they presumably know that they're suffering without being told by politicians. The party's message about the shutdown needs to be crafted for everyone else, and that's where the Democrats are falling short.
Small-government Republicans have long insisted that federal workers do very little that's essential — that most are paper-pushers collecting larded up paychecks and absurdly generous benefits in return for loyalty to the Democratic Party (through both votes for Democratic candidates and union dues that reliably end up lining party coffers). Focusing on the suffering of these employees during the shutdown, however humane it might be, tacitly confirms this narrative by making it look like the primary concern of the Democratic Party is the plight of federal workers rather than the good of the country as a whole. That's politically perilous for Democrats.
It would be far smarter for Democrats to focus on the important, and often essential, work these employees do. They aren't just mindless cogs in an impersonal, gargantuan machine spreading irritating regulations and pointless red tape as part of a political racket. They're doing the vitally important work of managing numerous aspects of our endlessly complex modern lives, providing essential services to tens of millions, and protecting ordinary Americans from a wide array of risks and hazards.
When the government does this vital work, we all benefit. When the work goes undone, we all suffer.
That should be the message, repeated relentlessly and illustrated with as many vivid, concrete examples as possible: Republicans care far more about cutting government to enrich their donors and pandering to their anti-immigrant base than they do about your safety and well-being. The shutdown isn't about federal workers. It's about who the federal workers serve: you.
In a little under three weeks, the shutdown has already led the Food and Drug Administration to curtail food inspections, trash and toilets to overflow at national parks, Transportation Security Administration employees at airport checkpoints to call in sick and quit their jobs, car accidents involving fatalities to go uninvestigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, crop reports to be delayed by the Department of Agriculture, and museums and monuments in Washington to be shuttered. With every passing day, more balls will be dropped and more work will be neglected. It's the proverbial snowball rolling down a hill, gathering size and speed as it goes. By the time it reaches bottom, it may be the leading edge of an avalanche of dysfunction.
If Democrats want to do everything they can to prevent that from happening, while also seeking to maximize a political windfall from Trump's decision to shut down the government over his wall, they need press this case every day.
If they don't, the shutdown will drag on — and the Democrats may well be dragged down with it.