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Spin Wars: Is the shutdown about blackmail or ObamaCare?

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Oct. 1, 2013: Sebastian Ramirez of Austin hikes out of the Bright Angel Trail in Grand Canyon National Park. Beginning at 6 am, visitors were told the park was closed and they could not visit. (AP)

The New York Daily News wasted no time picking sides as much of the federal bureaucracy shut down.

On the cover was John Boehner sitting in the Lincoln Memorial chair, his hands dripping with blood, with the screaming headline “HOUSE OF TURDS.”

When did Mort Zuckerman’s tabloid become so rabidly anti-Republican?

At the other end of the spectrum, the Drudge Report had this banner headline: “OBAMACRASH.” It linked to a piece about problems with the new health care insurance exchanges that opened yesterday as the government was closing its doors.

These were the competing story lines as the media coped with day one of the shutdown. 

For those leaning right, the initial glitches on the health care front, especially the number of computer systems that crashed when people seeking insurance tried to sign on and a delay in Maryland, was as big a story, if not bigger, than the shutdown. This tended to put the focus on the Republicans’ reason for standing their ground: their crusade against the president’s signature law.

For those leaning left, the shutdown was portrayed as a senseless calamity, which tended to make the Republicans, as the party that forced the confrontation, look unreasonable. The ObamaCare problems were given less prominence and reported as growing pains common to any major roll out.

As I predicted, the morning shows were filled with images of Yellowstone and the Statue of Liberty as various anchors described what was closed. There were also interviews with people who were affected as well as “they must be crazy” conversations with persons on the street.

It is these stories and images, repeated hour after hour, that will ratchet up the pressure on Washington, where the National Zoo was sadly closed and the Panda Cam turned off, to get the lights back on.

As the politicians made the rounds, they pretty much stuck to the same talking points as the day before the government shutdown. President Obama, who surrounded himself at the White House with people who got health insurance under his program, did an interview with NPR. His press secretary Jay Carney and communications director Jennifer Palmieri kept popping up on MSNBC and CNN.

CNN anchor Don Lemon, on Tom Joyner’s radio show, was not buying the notion that both sides bear responsibility.

“I felt helpless and I felt betrayed,” he said. “One, because of the false narrative that both sides caused this shutdown. That’s not true. It was caused by Republicans, mainly Tea Party Republicans.”

Piers Morgan gave a GOP congressman on his CNN show a similar message.

“Of course there are problems with ObamaCare,” he said. “However, the idea that a small group of Republicans have decided to simply shut down the government over this is a shameful dereliction of duty.”

On Fox, Karl Rove said ObamaCare would end up being a “disaster” and costing far more than advertised. On the “Today Show,” Nancy Snyderman gave a more upbeat assessment, saying it was important for young people to sign up, but also acknowledging drawbacks to the program.

But the shutdown is the more dramatic story at the moment, and will remain the MSM’s dominant story until the two sides reach a deal, as they inevitably will.

The Fox News website keeps using the term “slimdown” instead of shutdown, though no one would claim this was some kind of sensible Weight Watchers method of trimming government spending.

Elsewhere on the web, much of the debate revolved around the GOP’s ObamaCare tactics. National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru defended the party, to a point.

“It’s true that because the elections turned out the way they did -- with President Barack Obama re-elected and a Democratic majority in the Senate -- ObamaCare will almost certainly stay on the books for the next few years,” he said. “It’s also true that, as one might expect in such a heated debate, opponents of the law have sometimes used unwise tactics, hyperbolic language and false claims in attacking it. If you want to say that trying to stop ObamaCare by shutting down the government or hitting the debt ceiling is a terrible idea, you’ll get no argument from me.

“But there’s nothing wrong with continuing to resist ObamaCare even though it has been on the books for three years. What would be strange is if Republicans ended their opposition to it. The law was, after all, passed over almost-unanimous Republican objections. Other large government programs haven’t seen as sustained a campaign against them, but they had more bipartisan support at the outset. ObamaCare was unpopular with the public when it passed, and it has only become more so. Republicans generally think it will have bad effects on the economy and on health care. And it isn’t yet entrenched. Why wouldn’t they keep opposing it?”

The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn, under the headline “The Shutdown Is All Boehner’s Fault,” ties ObamaCare opposition to…birtherism. Really?

“The willingness to shut down the government and allow default suggests these conservatives don’t accept the political legitimacy of Democrats—or, at least, certain Democrats,” he writes. “It’s surely no coincidence that the same conservatives enthusiastic about going to the brink (and over the brink) in order to stop ObamaCare are the same ones who at various times have questioned Obama’s ancestry and religion—and accused him of stealing the election with the help of nefarious left-wing groups. If you truly believe that the president isn’t legitimate, why would you think his laws are? And if his laws aren’t legitimate, then why wouldn’t you indulge in extraordinary measures to stop them?”

Politico columnist Roger Simon aimed squarely at the conservatives.

“In the past, I would complain that Congress was dysfunctional,” he said. “Today, I would take dysfunctional. Because when the extreme right wing of Congress functions today, it functions with such malicious intent, with such perverse glee at frustrating the will of the people, that one does not know whether to laugh or cry.

“We live in a time when outright buffoonery passes for statesmanship. We live in a time when a 21-hour non-filibuster filibuster by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, leads not to general hilarity but serious consideration of how it will help Cruz run for president in 2016.”

If anything, the media and political rhetoric is getting more heated now that the shutdown is a reality. That may reflect nothing more than how high the stakes are.

Finally comes this smart analysis from National Journal’s Ron Brownstein on why this shutdown may not play out the same way as the last one 17 years ago.

“Even if a public backlash develops against a shutdown or potential government default, Republican members may be far more insulated against those gales than their counterparts were during the two shutdowns in the winter of 1995 and 1996,” he writes. “Today's GOP legislators, for the same reason, also may be less sensitive to shifts in public attitudes that could threaten their party's national image or standing in more closely contested parts of the country.

“Comparing today's 232-seat Republican majority with the 236 seats Republicans ultimately held after special elections and party switches from 1995-96 underscores the extent to which GOP legislators have succeeded in fortifying themselves into homogeneously conservative districts. On every measure, Republicans today represent constituencies that lean more lopsidedly toward their party.”

Which raises an intriguing question: Are the media covering the last war and expecting the same outcome?

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Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.