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Conservatives Have Already Lost Control of the Shutdown Narrative

It’s no secret why Republicans are facing a PR debacle over the shutdown they triggered. Not only have conservatives chosen an unpopular issue on which to make a stand—polls consistently show that Americans oppose defunding Obamacare by a fairly wide margin. The Tea Partiers have exacerbated the problem by choosing a massively unpopular approach to getting their way. The latest Quinnipiac poll finds that voters object to defunding Obamacare under threat of shutdown by a yawning 50-point margin. (In fairness, an earlier CNBC poll put the margin at a mere 41 points.) 

In retrospect, Republicans had exactly one hope for weathering the shutdown fight: turning it into a debate on the merits of Obamacare (as opposed to the merits of defunding Obamacare). That’s the one aspect of this confrontation where they hold an advantage, since more Americans oppose the president’s health care law than favor it. And, as luck would have it for the GOP, the central feature of the law went online Tuesday morning, at the precise moment the lights were going out on the federal government. The conservative media apparatus had already been planning round-the-clock coverage of the inevitable Obamacare glitches. If they could goad Democrats into a defense of Obamacare—a defense the White House had itself planned—they might drown out the otherwise brutal shutdown coverage and ward off disastrous infighting.

As if one cue, Obamacare stories led The Drudge Report (“Happy Obamacare Day!” “What a Mess!”) all day on Tuesday. Breitbart flooded the zone with news of Obamacare glitches. National Review Online welcomed readers with a detailed anti-Obamacare editorial. Discussion of the shutdown barely cracked their sites.

But, alas, it wasn’t meant to be. While the White House did move ahead with its planned Obamacare defense, featuring the president flanked by a tableau of sympathetic Americans, it wisely sandwiched the event between denunciations of Republican hostage-taking tactics. This, in turn, made it extremely difficult to pretend there wasn’t a Republican-instigated crisis at hand, even for a quasi-news organization of dodgy legitimacy prone to selectively covering national politics.

By which I of course mean Fox News. Watching Fox on Tuesday inspired that rubber-necking impulse you typically only get when a Fox anchor is forced to pronounce a foreign-sounding name (or is dressed down by a Republican they thought was sympathetic … usually over something foreign-sounding). Fox was all ready to go with its Obamacare set pieces—overburdened websites, 800-number backlogs. And it dutifully looped them into its coverage. But given its investment in the appearance of keeping viewers informed, it couldn’t exactly go AWOL on the biggest political story of the year. Instead it spent the day flailing. 

The 11 a.m. hour nicely encapsulated the confusion. Fox’s anchors kicked it off with a standard-issue news summary, beginning with “A long-running dispute over President Obama's health care law is leading to a furlough of about 800,000 government workers”—which is to say, the precise formulation that polls off the charts for Democrats. (Thanks guys!) Around 11:15, Fox wheeled out Karl Rove to carry on about the millions of people who will lose insurance coverage under Obamacare. But by the bottom of the hour it was back to the shutdown, with a debate between Nina Easton of Fortune and Jamie Weinstein of the right-wing Daily Caller over the likely fallout for Republicans. Here’s some sample dialogue*:

Weinstein: Republicans have no leverage. … It’s hard to see their endgame.

Easton: Yep, it hurts the Republican brand. … Republicans were hurt overall [in 1996]. I don’t think this will last as long. But if it goes into the debt ceiling, it will hurt Republicans. 

(An aside: Normally it’s the proud conservatives who have all the momentum in Fox News debates, and the supposed liberals and ostensibly objective reporters like Easton who find themselves on the defensive. Today it was the doughfaces who had the wind at their backs.)

My favorite moment came at the end of the hour, when a Fox anchor went one-on-one with Jonah Goldberg of National Review and Liberal Fascism fame. Team Fox seemed to think it found a solution to its shutdown woes by this point, selectively quoting from Obama’s insistence that he won’t negotiate over Congress’s most basic functions. “'I will not negotiate,’ how does that sound?” prompted the anchor. “Well, according to the polls, it sounds okay,” Goldberg conceded. He continued: 

That’s why he can take that line.… I’ve long thought this was a flawed strategy from the beginning. If you’re going to take a hostage, take one the other side doesn’t want to have shot. It’s obvious they [Democrats] want a government shutdown. They’ve always wanted it.

On it went like this throughout the day. “That was the bully pulpit. The president is taking advantage of it,” was how Britt Hume began his analysis of the president’s statement (played in full this time). “A lot of people will hear that. More than will hear any other version.” When New York Congressman Peter King appeared, invited on to account for a rumor that he’d ungraciously labeled his Tea Party colleagues the “Cruz Crazies,” King felt no need to back down: “This policy is madness.” (King did deny that he used the term crazies.) Even Rove, who at last check was unsure whether Ohio had given its electoral votes to Barack Obama, evinced little ambivalence in proclaiming the GOP shutdown strategy misguided.

As if to mock the despairing apparatchiks, every half hour brought another report from a correspondent in the field surveying the landscape of shuttered facilities. The Statue of Liberty. Bunker Hill. My favorite was a group a World War II veterans who’d trekked to Washington to tour the World War II memorial, only to find it barricaded when they got there. Fox played the footage over and over, clearly sensing a prime Kulturkampf opportunity—aging war veterans made to suffer indignities by socialist president. But none of the Foxies narrating the story could quite figure out what to do with the fact that it takes government money to build memorials, and government money to keep them open. And so it just hung out there as an implicit rebuke of Republicans.

It was all enough to make your average Fox anchor a little … sad. “There’s all this infighting, people are blaming Republicans,” protested Gretchen Carlson, late of “Fox and Friends,” now of her own daily 2 o’clock show, evincing none of her trademark perky menace. “We should be talking about Obamacare, instead we’re talking about the shutdown.”

Carlson’s right: Fox and its political arm (aka the Republican Party) really should be talking Obamacare if it hopes to tread water these next few weeks. That it can’t tells you all you need to know about which way this thing is headed.

Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow @noamscheiber

*I transcribed all quotes contemporaneously, so I may have missed some words here and there.