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Mastering the art of shiny objects

Republicans are looking for anything to distract from their shutdown disaster
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) (C) walks away from a news conference at the U.S. Capitol, October 3, 2013 in Washington, DC.

When there's a major political fight underway, it's wise to keep your eye on which side of the divide wants to talk about the substance and which side wants to shine a light on shiny objects. As a rule, it's the latter that's losing.

As Day 3 of the government shutdown gets underway, we're now averaging one sideshow per day, which does not bode well for a protracted crisis. The first spectacle was watching the same Republicans who shut down the government express outrage over the closure of the World War II Memorial in D.C. The second was this.

CNN's Dana Bash asked [Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid] during an October 2 press conference if Democrats would be supportive of a House bill that would reinstate funding to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). That funding, which includes a program that provides access to clinical trials for children with cancer, was halted after House Republicans refused to pass a bill to fund government operations in an effort to derail the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.Bash then asked, "If you can help one child who has cancer, why wouldn't you do it?" Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) replied to Bash, "Why pit one against the other?" and Reid, who was critical of the Republican idea that Congress could "pick and choose" which parts of the government to fund, added, "Why would we want to do that? I have 1,100 people at Nellis Air Force base that are sitting home. They have a few problems of their own." Reid's comments referenced his push for a bill that would fund the entire government, including the NIH.

The right could barely contain its glee. "OMG! Reid hates children with cancer! We knew it!"

This was unusually stupid for two main reasons. The first, obviously, has to do with context and the point Reid was trying to make. As Dylan Byers explained, "The problem with separating quotes from context is that the effort usually comes back to bite you. Before you know it, you end up being depicted as someone who has to invent controversy because you're no longer capable of debating on substance."

Quite right.

The second has to do with confusion on the right about the nature of political narratives -- a subject conservatives generally understand better than this.

I probably shouldn't have to explain this to Republicans, but "gaffes" have an impact when they reinforce an existing story or belief. For example, Mitt Romney said during last year's presidential campaign that he likes "being able to fire people." The context was more forgiving, but this became a big story because it bolstered the worst impressions we already had about Romney -- he had a record of making a profit after laying off workers.

Later, we saw the "you didn't build that" line from President Obama. Any sane person could hear the remarks and notice the context, but the right seized on the line because of the larger narrative they were so eager to push -- the president, they said, was hostile to free enterprise and these four words proved they were right. It was a "gaffe," in other words, because it fueled a message Obama's critics were already eagerly pushing.

With Harry Reid and the NIH, the right not only pushed an idiotic claim, they also undermined their own narrative. In order for yesterday's "gaffe" to make any sense at all, one must believe that the Senate Democratic leader is a heartless, conservative miser who opposes public investments in health care and medical research. Seriously.

Republicans spent yesterday afternoon asking us to see Harry Reid as too right-wing for their tastes. Literally no one could be dumb enough to believe such garbage.