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How the Press Helped Cause the GOP Shutdown

Journalists continue to invoke the inapplicable "both-sides-are-to-blame" angle—they should know better.

Photo Credit: By Monika Flueckiger, World Economic Forum [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


Appearing on MSNBC's  Morning Joe just days before the looming deadline for a federal government shutdown, Politico's Mike Allen was assessing the politics of the controversy and predicting which Beltway players would get tagged with the blame for the intentional legislative debacle. Despite the fact that Republicans were refusing to fund the government if the White House balked at the demand to essentially repeal its 2010 health care law, Allen suggested President Obama would be the real political loser.

Why Obama? Because he's more famous than the GOP congressional leaders whose actions are causing the impasse.

"A lot of people in the country don't know John Boehner. There's no one in the world who doesn't know Barack Obama," Allen explained. "So when Washington is not working, it's going off the rails in a very visible way, a way that is vivid and touches people, that's not good ultimately for the president."

That's an awfully tenuous path to blame Obama for the Republicans' proudly obstructionist strategy to stop funding the government.

Yet so it goes within portions of the Beltway press corps who are straining to include Democrats in the shutdown blame game; to make sure "both sides" are targeted for tsk-tsk scoldings about "Washington dysfunction," and that the Republicans'  truly radical nature remains casually ignored. This media act is getting old. And this media act may be emboldening the Republicans' extreme behavior.

Note that unlike the government shutdowns during the Clinton administration, this one was not prompted by a budgetary disagreement between the two parties. It was provoked by the GOP's unheard-of demand that in order to vote for government spending  they agree is necessary, the White House had to strip away funding for its health care law. Also note that the looming showdown over the debt ceiling represents another orchestrated crisis in which the GOP is making unprecedented demands on the president in exchange for their votes for a policy they say they support. Both cases illustrate the folly of trying to blame the White House for failing to engage with Republicans, who have embraced a path of purposefully unsolvable confrontations.

What's been clear for years is that the press clings to its preferred storyline: When Republicans obstruct Obama's agenda, the president's to blame for not changing the GOP's unprecedented behavior. In other words, "both sides" are to blame for the GOP's radical actions and the epic gridlock it produces.

The media lesson for Republicans? There's very little political downside to pushing extremism if the press is going to give the party a pass.

And now, rather than seeing the health care obstructionism as part of an obvious Republican continuum, and rather than noting it followed the gun law obstructionism, which followed the sequester obstructionism, which followed the Chuck Hagel confirmation obstructionism, which followed the Hurricane Sandy emergency relief obstructionism, which followed consistent obstructionism on juridicial nominees, the press remains reluctant to connect the obvious dots that help paint the portrait of a truly radical Republican party.

Indeed, if ever there were a scenario where it was blindly obvious both sides are definitely not to blame, this would be it. In this case Democrats have mostly been forced to be spectators as they watch a civil war unfold within the Republican Party between its far-right Tea Party allies and the rest of the GOP that wants to keep the government running. It's a rump faction of as few as 30 hardcore House Republicans who refuse to support a clean bill funding the government (and the GOP leadership which has refused to stand up to them) that precipitated the shutdown.