Contributing opinion writer

Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), as they fashioned their political strategy on the government shutdown, ignored George Bernard Shaw’s wisdom: “Never wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.”

The Democratic leaders may regret their sloppiness. Schumer and Pelosi seemed triumphant after their meeting with President Trump this month in the Oval Office, happy that the president had so emphatically welcomed ownership of the shutdown.

But be careful what you wish for. Every day that goes by with the government shuttered and shutdown clocks clicking on the cable channels is a distraction from Pelosi and Schumer’s ability to make a new and better impression — not just on the people who increasingly control and energize the party and who bitterly oppose the wall, but also on those more “soft” or swing voters in the suburbs and rural America. It is those voters’ continued support following the midterms that is essential to winning the White House and possibly the Senate in 2020.

Instead of assuming their new authority in the new year by setting an affirmative agenda on health care, as well as shining light on the Trump administration’s corruption, Pelosi and Schumer find themselves in a showdown with a president who seems to relish the fight as a welcome distraction from his increasing political precariousness, and as a way of spoiling the Democrats’ fresh start.

Dare we say it: Trump is being clever. He is not only insisting on funding his border wall to appease his base. He is also doing it to box in the Democrats with theirs. Trump is betting that neither Pelosi nor Schumer can afford to appear weak in their first encounter with the president after their midterm victories. The wall is an anathema to progressives, and the last thing Pelosi and Schumer want is to sully their fresh start by caving into Trump’s demands. But the longer the government stays closed, the less chance for Democrats in Congress to get off to a strong start as both sides in the dispute appear feckless and blameworthy.

The president has lured the Democrats’ leaders into his very sloppy barnyard and he figures he has nothing to lose. After all, he can claim he is fighting on a popular principle: protecting Americans from illegal immigration. And what can Pelosi and Schumer claim: that the wall is a technically stupid and unnecessary construct, or that that the days of being bullied by Trump are over? Both arguments seem weak and diffuse compared to the president’s.

Trump may not be enhanced by this fight, but he no longer cares. Like Shaw’s pig, he just wants to make to make his opponents look as bad as he does. And he may well succeed.