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Politicians playing politics over a political-shutdown

A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. So, in the midst of the partial government shutdown, it seems everyone has taken turns placing blame. It’s the Senator Ted Cruz shutdown, the Obama shutdown, the Tea Party shutdown.

The point here is not to own the shutdown, but to make someone else own it – to personalize it and dump it on the other side. We’re not talking about the policy side of it here, but how political operations are using the shutdown.

For example, here in Michigan, Democratic Party fundraising messages are calling it “Terry Lynn Land’s shutdown.” She has shut down the government, apparently, while still merely a candidate for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination.

And, as the federal government grinds to a standstill, political fundraisers and message-makers are working overtime. This is an environment that is, as they say, target rich. There are people whose jobs are to take these moments that command people’s attention, incite passion, anger, frustration, and turn them into campaign cash and memorable political messages.

But when everyone’s talking about the same thing, it can also be difficult to break through the cacophony. And a lot of people seem to be working off the same talking points. Democrats have one set: critical services in peril; a country held hostage by the Tea Party. Republicans, another: Democrats did this. They won’t negotiate.

A lot of time was spent this week saying “no” to congressional candidates unleashed on Michigan and their districts. We said “no” to various interview requests because all they had was variations on the same talking-points coming out of D.C. (Yawn.)

But then, a group of Congressional Republicans – Western Michigan’s Representative Bill Huizenga, among them – hit on what seemed to be messaging gold. The GOP group “embedded” themselves with a group of World War II vets who made the trip to D.C. to visit the World War II monument. The members were “outraged” (outraged, I say!) that the government shutdown of non-essential services actually shut down this non-essential service.

So, Congressman Huizenga and company joined that “Band of Brothers” as they took the monument. “A couple of my colleagues moved the fence. We started walking the guys in. Led with the bagpipes. And I gotta tell you it was probably one of the most fulfilling things that I’ve done here in the three years that I’ve been in Washington,” Huizenga told a local television station after the incident. Their message: Republicans aren’t shutting down the government – they’re re-opening it, one national monument at a time.

As we mentioned, during a headline-dominating event like the shutdown, it’s difficult to break through without something different to say. In fact, some Republicans complained that the attention paid to the shutdown – attention that was largely not complimentary to Congressional Republicans - stepped on coverage of the glitches in the first day of people signing up for health insurance under Obamacare. 

Which brings us to Mark Schauer.

Pity the presumptive 2014 Democratic nominee for governor. He had something different to say this week.  A little too different. Hoping to counter the air war launched last week by Governor Rick Snyder’s reelection campaign, Schauer hoped to get people talking about schools and education funding with an early endorsement by the state’s largest teachers’ union.

But the Michigan Education Association endorsement fell on almost deaf ears as the public and the news media focused that very same day on the shutdown. The endorsement story just dropped to the bottom of the pile of political news.

The timing, on the face of it, was not unreasonable; talking about school spending on the first day of Michigan’s new budget year. The official school student count day was this week, as well.

But, as we’ve learned, the message has to be right for the moment… but the moment also has to be right for that message.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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