Fox News Got GOP Into Shutdown Mess, But It Can't Get The GOP Out

Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

Like a little kid counting down the days until Christmas, Fox News' Sean Hannity was giddy with anticipation in recent weeks and months. As the threat of a federal government shutdown drew closer, he casually dismissed any concern about its impact and welcomed its arrival.  

Hannity was just one of many voice joining the right-wing cacophony, as Obama's fiercest critics eagerly touted the shutdown, cheered the GOP's radical strategy, and vowed to support the obstructionism.  ("Hold the line," the talker recently urged.)  The shutdown was to be celebrated and Republicans who engineered it were commended for their accomplishment.

Not everyone on Fox News agrees with the strategy. But the cable channel has certainly served as a generous source of cheerleading, as have lots of Tea Party-aligned media outlets. Dutifully praising the unprecedented move of tying a bill funding the government to the demand that a previously passed law (Obamacare) be defunded, the GOP Noise Machine eagerly rushed into battle on behalf of the party's shutdown wing, convinced that a major political victory was at hand.

But it hasn't worked out that way.

Dealt an incoherent hand by Republican activists in Congress who seem to jump back and forth between proudly defending the shutdown's continuation and demanding Obama and Democrats end it immediately, the party's press allies have been caught up in confused messages and jumbled, often contradictory, talking points. (It's not really a shutdown, it's just a "slimdown.")

And this time Democrats aren't the only ones lashing out at Tea Party-leaning House members and denouncing them as radicals. So are other members of the Republican Party. That ongoing intramural skirmish is trampling any rational messaging the GOP might have hoped would shift public opinion. After all, if even some Republicans think their colleagues botched the shutdown ("The entire effort has been totally disingenuous"), voters are likely to agree.  

That contradiction has been mirrored on Fox News and throughout the right-wing media since the shutdown went into effect. The Noise Machine that cheered the GOP's shutdown strategy is now powerless to help the party recover from an unfolding public relations debacle.

With the Republican Party playing defense in the face of overwhelming polling results that confirm the shutdown is deeply unpopular and that Republicans are getting blamed more than Democrats for the impasse, the right-wing media megaphone Republicans rely on has stumbled badly this week.

Another daunting hurdle? The surging consumer interest in Obamacare. Thanks to the stampede this week in response to the registration rollout, the fight to get rid of Obamacare, to wipe it out as a government program, is effectively over. That's simply not going to happen, not when Americans are lining up online to join. Which means the central talking point of the shutdown push (defund Obamacare!) has already been rendered meaningless.

Even the conservative Wall Street Journal's editorial page conceded that point, urging Republican firebrands, for now at least,  "to give up the impossible task of defunding or delaying Obamacare."

What's so astonishing, and so revealing, is how quickly Obamacare itself was dropped from the conservative shutdown strategy, a bewildering turn reflected in the right-wing media's coverage and emphasis. "What distinguished the House agenda on Tuesday was that it wasn't about Obamacare," noted Byron York in the conservative Washington Examiner. "The fight is now about the shutdown itself, and Obamacare has been pushed to the side."

Instead, the shutdown's allies in the press this week set off after diversionary stories about access to the World War II Memorial, and pretending Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he wasn't interested in helping kids with cancer. Neither forced outrage was remotely connected to defunding health care, which was supposed point of this week's grand exercise.

And the diversionary pursuits only led to more glaring contradictions. Expressing outrage that the war memorial was closed to and sympathy for the aging World War II veterans who protested the inconvenience, The Five's co-host Dana Perino insisted Democrats used the memorial as a crass bargaining chip to "insert some sort of pain," as "they screw down the nut" on Republicans.

But the next evening, The Five co-host Greg Gutfeld lashed out at people who were protesting inconveniences:  "So stop whining about a partial shutdown." Then the next day, Fox's Steve Doocy complained Democrats were simply using the shutdown to "exact some pain" on Americans.

So which is it? Is the White House singling out people for shutdown payback and trying to inflict pain (Perino and Doocy), or should everyone "stop whining" about the shutdown (Gutfeld)? Fox News storytelling is rarely this jumbled, especially for such a high-profile Republican production. 

In truth, Fox's narrative woes simply reflect those of the GOP. Three days into the dysfunctional exercise, Jonathan Bernstein noted in the Washington Post that Republicans couldn't answer the simple question of why:

[W]hat Republicans have been up to since about Saturday night has been stumbling from one Fox-ready talking point to the next, while moving farther and farther from actually having any idea of what, specifically, they believe is worth shutting the government down over.

Conservatives actually had high hopes that a new generation of media players, manipulating contemporary online tools, would help them to win the shutdown messaging fight. Last month, the New York Times reported that "a fervent group of conservatives -- bloggers, pundits, activists and even members of Congress -- is harnessing the power of the Internet, determined to tell the story of the current budget showdown on its terms."

Those high hopes now appear to be dashed. After one week, Obamacare has been deemed a consumer hit, the shutdown is a flop, and Republicans have been assigned blame for the widely unpopular scheme.

It's hard to see how Fox's messaging effort could have gone any worse.

Posted In
Health Care Reform
Fox News Channel
Sean Hannity, Steve Doocy
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