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The all-purpose media guide to government dysfunction

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Feb. 28, 2013: A general view of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington. (Reuters)

Sick of the shutdown yet?

It seems like we’re inundated with the same talking points from each side as the government’s partial closure heads into its second week.

Why won’t the Democrats negotiate? Oh yeah, why are the Republicans holding a gun to our head?

It’s like a game of tennis in which no one scores a point. President Obama felt the need yesterday to swat back John Boehner’s charge that the Democrats won’t talk, saying that he’s happy to negotiate after the government reopens (when the GOP would have less leverage) and that his side has already compromised by agreeing to the stopgap bill at Republican funding levels.

There's little question the GOP has a bigger political headache here, as underscored by the latest Washington Post/ABC poll. A sobering 70 percent disapprove of the Republicans' handling of the shutdown, compared to 61 percent for the Democrats and 51 percent for Obama. (Yes, I know there's no difference between O's position and his party's, but he has a bigger megaphone.)

So much of the coverage has been been about the back-and-forth—who’s mad at Ted Cruz, does the White House really want this to drag on, how does Boehner get control of his own caucus.

Outside the D.C. bubble, though, most voters are disgusted. What is the fight about, at this point, as the GOP moves off its defund-ObamaCare demands? “No clean CR” is not exactly “give me liberty or give me death.”

So there is a journalistic effort under way to take a broader view, to analyze why Washington no longer works, to bring some historical context to why the government can’t keep its doors open.

Not quite as exciting as the debate over the Redskins name, but a worthwhile exercise nonetheless. We’ve all become so inured to partisan gridlock that the shutdown almost seems like just another boring Beltway battle.

The Washington Post op-ed page has two attempts to survey the larger landscape. First, Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt:

“The government seems unable to do its job. The shutdown can be blamed on the reckless, irresponsible miscalculations of congressional Republicans. But the shutdown is only the most extreme example of government’s failure to solve solvable problems: to fix Social Security, pass a budget, reform immigration laws. What gives?

“One theory is bad luck: Some analysts suggest that John Boehner, Harry Reid and Barack Obama are a collection of unusually weak leaders, or leaders especially ill-matched in temperament.

“A variation on that theme holds that leaders of the previous generation were the aberration: Men (mostly) whose world views were formed in World War II and the Cold War understood the nature of existential threats and were willing to put aside partisan interest for the nation’s good. Today’s partisanship is just a return to normal.”

Hiatt offers other theories, from slow growth to inadequate political institutions. For Post economics columnist Robert Samuelson, it’s the rise of ideology:

“Why did they do it? Why did congressional Republicans trigger a shutdown for which they would predictably be blamed and from which they could win few Democratic concessions? The conventional answer blames stupidity, craziness and fanaticism. This is too glib and partisan. It misses a deeper cause that, I believe, helps explain why politics has become more dysfunctional.

“By dysfunctional, I mean that it’s less able to mediate differences and conflicts. This is, after all, a central purpose of politics. Broadly speaking, conflicts originate from interest groups and ideologies. The curse of U.S. politics is that it’s become less about interests and more about ideologies — and ideologies breed moral absolutes, rigid agendas and strong emotions.”

I could add several more ingredients to the stew: Gerrymandered districts that leave lawmakers worried only about a primary challenge. The decline of party loyalty and rise of a media culture in which any politician can make a splash, develop a fundraising base and ponder a White House run.

Whatever the reasons, we are left with a government that is lurching from one self-imposed crisis to the next.

We now resume our regular programming.

At the Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes defends the beleaguered House speaker:

“Boehner is more adept and clever than his reputation in the media would lead one to believe. In moving to the right, he acknowledged that smart but impatient conservatives are the majority in the Republican caucus. Those labeled ‘chuckleheads’ last year by retiring Rep. Steve LaTourette of Ohio—perhaps as many as 20 libertarians, loners, and oddballs—are peripheral actors. And the notion that an amorphous ‘Tea Party’ or various right-wing lobbies call the shots is absurd. ... 

“Leading with a strong yet unattainable proposal can make a fallback position quite acceptable. Defunding Obama-care was a bridge too far for most Americans. Guess what? While 53 percent in a Fox News poll oppose defunding, a 57 percent majority believe Obamacare ‘should be delayed for a year until more details are ironed out.’

“That Boehner has capitulated to right-wing noisemakers is the idea-du-jour in political and press circles. It’s half true. He’s caved, but it’s to Republican reality, which is closer to the beliefs of most Americans than what is emerging these days from the Obama-Reid-Pelosi axis.”

A constructive cave-in?

In the Atlantic, James Fallows takes on the press for what he calls “tragedy of gridlock” false-equivalence stories, saying:

“If the House of Representatives voted on a "clean" budget bill -- one that opened up the closed federal offices but did not attempt to defund the Obama health care program -- that bill would pass, and the shutdown would be over. Nearly all Democrats would vote for it, as would enough Republicans to end the shutdown and its related damage. (And of course it has already passed the Senate, repeatedly,  and would be signed by the president.)…

“So far House Speaker John Boehner has refused to let this vote occur. His Tea Party contingent knows how the vote would go and therefore does not want it to happen; and such is Boehner's fear of them, and fear for his job as Speaker, that he will not let it take place.

These two points are why the normal D.C.-poohbah moanings about the need for compromise do not apply. The Democratic administration, and a sufficient number of Republicans, already agree and are ready enough to compromise to solve this problem. If the normal machinery of democracy were allowed to work, the manufactured crisis would be over.”

Scalia Cancels Subscription

We get a glimpse of Antonin Scalia’s media diet in New York magazine’s provocative interview with the justice:

“We just get The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times. We used to get the Washington Post, but it just … went too far for me. I couldn’t handle it anymore.

“What tipped you over the edge?

“It was the treatment of almost any conservative issue. It was slanted and often nasty. And, you know, why should I get upset every morning? I don’t think I’m the only one. I think they lost subscriptions partly because they became so shrilly, shrilly liberal.

“So no New York Times, either?

“No New York Times, no Post.”

Post Goes Hip

Scalia will undoubtedly miss it, but the Washington Post has a new online feature, Know More, run by liberal columnist and MSNBC commentator Ezra Klein.

It’s very un-Post-like, almost channeling BuzzFeed. It consists of a series of photos, graphics, charts and info-bits, each with a short cutline. The topics range from poverty to Grumpy Cat. It’s kind of eye-catching, but E-Z to read. Maybe that’s the idea. 

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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.