By now, you’ve presumably seen Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s comments playing down the severity of the government shutdown. Basically, he said all the workers will get paid eventually (which isn’t completely true) and that even if they didn’t, it would constitute only one-third of 1 percent of the gross domestic product. A pittance, really!
You might also have seen President Trump’s daughter-in-law Lara Trump saying the shutdown means “a little bit of pain” but “is so much bigger than any one person.” And perhaps you’ve seen White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett saying about furloughed federal workers who will eventually get back pay: “In some sense, they’re better off.”
Any one of these comments is of highly questionable judgment. But even aside from the yuck factor of diminishing people’s very real struggles, they reveal something important: The Trump team recognizes they aren’t winning the shutdown fight.
In some ways, playing down the pain experienced by federal workers is on-brand for Republicans. This is the party of smaller government, which generally doesn’t side with workers in an allegedly bloated bureaucracy. Republicans as a party also generally believe the media oversells this stuff, so perhaps this is a bit of an involuntary reflex. And these are all people of means talking here — especially in the case of Ross and Lara Trump. Maybe they truly just can’t empathize.
But in shutdowns, pain is leverage. That pain is what you need to force the other side’s hand. You don’t force a shutdown in the first place if this is something you could get without people suffering adverse effects that the other side wants to bring to an end. Otherwise you would just negotiate the border wall separately from funding the government, and we wouldn’t have to go through all this. It’s a game of chicken, with real people’s livelihoods on the line, because otherwise there is no leverage.
And if Republicans believed they were truly winning this debate, their answer to all of this would be, “Yes, it’s awful. And it’s all the Democrats' fault since they won’t give us a measly $5 billion for a border wall.” They wouldn’t be playing down the pain; they’d be reinforcing how bad the situation was and how easy it would be to end.
Of course, Republicans can read the polls just like we can. Right now those polls show Americans blame Trump and the Republicans by a 20-to-26-percentage-points more than they blame Democrats. That margin is on par with where things stood in past high-profile shutdowns (1995-1996 and 2013) when Republicans folded. Just 28 percent of people in a CBS News poll this week said the shutdown was worth it to get border-wall funding; 71 percent said it wasn’t.
That’s not exactly a recipe for success. Ultimately the Democrats may provide something of a concession — reports are that they’ll offer Trump’s requested $5.7 billion, but only for border security and not a wall — but they have no reason to cave in at this point.
These officials know Trump hasn’t given up yet, though, and that this could linger for weeks more thanks to his whims, stubbornness and pride. So about all they can do is argue that it’s not as bad as some people are saying and hope to mitigate the damage to their party’s cause that could come from all this.
But damage mitigation isn’t what you do when you’re winning. It’s what you do when you are worried about the outcome.