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.