It’s impossible to say whether we’ll face another crisis of governance in three months, when the stopgap budget resolution passed on Wednesday expires, but it’s clear that the 40 or 50 hardcore, tea party-backed members of Congress who precipitated the shutdown want another crack at it. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConell (R-KY) may have told The National Review that another shutdown “is off the table,” but Rep. John Fleming (R-LA), a member of the tea party caucus, told reporters to get ready for “round two” because in January, “we’re going to start this all over again.”
On its face, the desire to reprise a tactical maneuver that was politically disastrous for the Republican Party – one that’s damaged its brand so badly that there’s now a remote chance that control of the House might be up for grabs next November – appears to be completely irrational. But it’s perfectly reasonable for those on the right who mostly speak to other true believers and get their information primarily from the conservative media.
As Mitch McConnell was reporting the details of the agreement he’d struck with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (R-NV), Ted Cruz (R-TX) told reporters that the shutdown had been “a great victory” for Republicans. That kind of disconnect was common throughout the standoff. Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC), a moderate, said on Wednesday that public opinion had played a major role in Republicans’ decision to fold their tent. But even as the GOP sank to depths of approval never before seen in either the Gallup or the NBC/Wall Street Journal polls, Breitbart published a piece titled, “Polls Show Obama, Dems Losing Public Opinion Battle Over Shutdown, Obamacare,” and The Weekly Standard offered “eight reasons the shutdown won’t hurt Republicans.” Rep. David Schweikert (R-AZ) told one reporter that the sampling in those devastating polls was skewed.
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And while the economic damage caused by shutting down the government and playing chicken with the debt limit was undeniable, Fox News dismissed it as a government “slimdown,” and an estimate by a Republican Budget Committee that only 17 percent of government had shut down quickly spread through the conservative media. “Debt ceiling deniers” – people who believed that the consequences of breaching the limit were exaggerated or imaginary – were easy to find among movement politicians and their allies in the conservative media.
And then there’s Obamacare. For many on the right, it’s not a law with a number of popular measures, one of which, the insurance exchanges, has had a very rocky rollout – it’s an unmitigated disaster that, as Ted Cruz put it, has already cost millions of Americans their jobs and their health care. And as Dylan Scott reported for Talking Points Memo, “The firm belief that the American public shares the same view of Obamacare that they do… remains omnipresent among hard-line conservatives.” So while Senator John McCain (R-AZ) said the shutdown was “one of the more shameful chapters I have seen in the years I have spent here in the Senate,” Sean Hannity’s message for Republicans was that this was “the hill to die on.”
What all of this means is that those hardcore conservatives who pushed their leadership to shut down the government aren’t only insulated from public opinion because they represent overwhelmingly white, heavily Republican districts. It’s also a result of “epistemic closure” — the tendency, universal but especially pronounced on the right – to seek out like-minded views and ignore information that contradicts one’s previously held beliefs. To the degree that we risk replaying this entire fiasco in a few short months, the alternative universe created day in and day out by a dedicated conservative media ecosystem is at least partially to blame.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the narrative of the party’s defeat that has gelled within the tea party. In their view, it wasn’t a result of the conservative wing pushing for a strategy that polls showed to be highly unpopular before it began. Rather, they were “betrayed by chicken-hearted RINOS” (Republicans in Name Only), as Fox News’ Todd Starnes put it, and, even worse, their otherwise highly popular message was the victim of “liberal media bias” among the mainstream press corps.
There was a telling moment during a press briefing by several House conservatives on Wednesday, when Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC) told reporters, “We’ve been talking amongst this group for the last four weeks about fairness, about whether or not it’s fair to give extensions to people who have political connections and make our families live under a different law.” He assailed the media for not carrying that message to the American people. Of the prospect of another showdown in the future, he added, “if we can figure out a way to drive that message home, that this is about fairness … then the outcome may well be different.”
But “fairness” is such a transparently false talking point that no serious journalist would ever embrace it. It originated with the Obama administration’s decision to delay the mandate forcing large corporations to insure their workers because businesses needed more time to comply with the measure’s reporting requirements. They weren’t exempted from the law, and the consequence of the year-long delay is insignificant.
We expect politicians to respond to ordinary political incentives, and if that were the case, there would be no chance at all that tea party lawmakers would further sully their image with another disruptive showdown over the budget or debt ceiling. But when they’re mostly exposed to their own spin, those incentives get skewed, and that’s a big reason why we might end up in this mess once again early next year.