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Burying the Republicans: The media’s rush to judgment

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Republican senators, from left, Ted Cruz of Texas, John McCain of Arizona, David Vitter of Louisiana, and Richard Shelby of Alabama, after they met with President Barack Obama regarding the government shutdown and debt ceiling. (AP)

Let’s face it. Things aren’t looking great for the GOP right now.

The poll numbers are bad, with only 24 percent approving of the party in a WSJ/NBC survey, lowest in the poll’s history. The buzz is bad, with lots of downbeat headlines. The reviews from Republican pols who thought the defunding-ObamaCare strategy was nuts are bad, with John McCain telling Fox it was “a fool’s errand that we were not going to accomplish.”

Cue the obituary writers.

But for all the media pronouncements about how the party has ruined its brand, I think the GOP death watch is way premature.

Why do I say that? Because I’ve been through these cycles before, and the situation is rarely as dire as it is portrayed by the political press.

In the short term, regardless of the shutdown/default endgame, it’s going to take a while for the Republicans to recover from these self-inflicted wounds.

But I can remember when the GOP looked utterly moribund in 1974, after Richard Nixon’s resignation led to a huge Democratic majority in the House. Two years later, Gerald Ford almost held onto the presidency, and four years after that the Reagan era began.

In 2008, when the Republicans lost the popular vote for the fourth time in five presidential elections and the age of Obama was dawning, the party looked lost. Two years later, Republicans recaptured the House in a wave of Tea Party sentiment.

The Democrats, too, were written off in many quarters after losing the White House in 1980, 1984 and 1988. There was talk of a GOP electoral lock on the presidency. Guess the Dems figured out how to pick it.

None of this is to minimize the damage to today’s Republican Party, just to offer some historical perspective.

Liberal sites are having a grand time. Salon, for example, sees a deep divide.

“For nearly 150 years, there was something in America called the Republican Party,” it says. “It was far from perfect. It often faltered. It made mistakes. But it was predictable; when it was in power, you knew, for the most part, what you were getting.

“Cut to now and things look mighty different. The Republican Party today is, as Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein put it, ‘an insurgent outlier in American politics … ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.’ But, to borrow the title of Mann and Ornstein’s recent book, it’s even worse than it looks. There’s the Tea Party and then there’s a rump of spineless moderates. The GOP, quite simply, has been split in two.”

But is this a permanent divorce or a trial separation?

The New Republic compares the party’s plight to the worst days of the Dems.

“The party’s leadership has begun to lose control of its members in Congress,” it says. “The party’s base has become increasingly shrill and is almost as dissatisfied with the Republican leadership in Washington as it is with President Obama. New conservative groups have echoed, and taken advantage of, this sentiment by targeting Republicans identified with the leadership for defeat…

“What is happening in the Republican Party today is reminiscent of what happened to the Democrats in the late 1960s and early 1970s. At that time, the Democrats in Washington were faced by a grassroots revolt from the new left over the war in Vietnam and from the white South over the party’s support for civil rights. It took the Democrats over two decades to do undo the damage—to create a party coalition that united the leadership in Washington with the base and that was capable of winning national elections. The Republicans could be facing a similar split between their base and their Washington leadership, and it could cripple them not just in the 2014 and 2016 elections, but for decades to come.”

But the Ted Cruz wing is also getting beat up from the conservative side, as in this New York Times column by Ross Douthat (by the way, the “Kurtz Republicans” headline refers not to me, of course, but to Colonel Kurtz of “Apocalypse Now” fame).

“There is still something well-nigh-unprecedented about how Republicans have conducted themselves of late,” Douthat writes. “It’s not the scale of their mistake, or the kind of damage that it’s caused, but the fact that their strategy was such self-evident folly, so transparently devoid of any method whatsoever.

“Every sensible person, most Republican politicians included, could recognize that the shutdown fever would blow up in the party’s face. Even the shutdown’s ardent champions never advanced a remotely compelling story for how it would deliver its objectives. And everything that’s transpired since, from the party’s polling nose dive to the frantic efforts to save face, was entirely predictable in advance.”

Politico says they’re feeling good at 1600 Pennsylvania, but trying not to spike the football.

“White House officials will surely portray it as a victory of common sense over creed, a necessary step forward for the American people so that federal operations can continue and the economy can avoid the catastrophe of a default,” it says. “President Barack Obama will disavow any interest in the score-keeping of Washington’s winners and losers.

“But Obama and fellow Democrats, particularly Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who urged him over the summer to adopt a hard line and keep deal-making Vice President Joe Biden out of the mix, know that their unwillingness to give an inch dragged some of their most ardent Republican adversaries to the position of just wanting to end the pain. They also know that the GOP suffered even greater self-inflicted damage by letting the government shut down before coming to the conclusion that the public agreed with the president’s position.”

But Obama’s not all that popular either. And progress seems to have stalled since that piece was posted.

The big question is whether the shutdown will still resonate by the time the 2014 midterms roll around, not to mention when the GOP unites behind a 2016 presidential nominee.

The media love to reach grand conclusions and to pronounce last rites. But they also love comeback stories.

Megyn Gets Personal

If you missed my “Media Buzz” interview with Megyn Kelly, she talks about calling out “morons,” why she thinks the media lean left, juggling work and kids, dealing with her own insecurities about television and, yes, her appearance.

Click for more from Media Buzz.

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.