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Opinion: Groundhog Day in America

Sensationalism, not substance, drives the daily conversation

Washington politics feels a lot like waking up to “Groundhog Day” every morning, Winston writes. (Courtesy Columbia Pictures)
Washington politics feels a lot like waking up to “Groundhog Day” every morning, Winston writes. (Courtesy Columbia Pictures)

When it comes to Washington politics, it feels a lot like we’re all living in the comedy “Groundhog Day,” where every day starts the same way, over and over and over again. In the movie, Bill Murray wakes up every morning at 6 a.m. as the clock radio blares Sonny and Cher singing “I Got You Babe.”

America wakes up every day to the diatribe du jour from morning show anchors Mika and Joe, Chris and Alisyn, and from the “Friends” in the opposition. Soon after, the president sends out his first tweet of the day. Cable explodes, shrieking, “This time, it’s really Armageddon.”

Democrats go off the deep end. The mainstream media piles on, tracking Republicans like bloodhounds for comment. Sarah Huckabee Sanders explains what the tweet really meant, followed shortly by the president’s own explanation. Later, prime-time cable kicks off with a nightly meltdown and by days end, America heads to bed, afraid to wake up. That’s Groundhog Day in America.

Twitter wars

Every day, Twitter fights substitute for political discourse as the president sets off controversies that often overshadow what could be positive messages about the progress his administration has made. On the Hill, relations between the parties sour as petty indignations morph into permanent grudges and cooperation is all but extinct.

Every day, Democrats push the same agenda that cost them the presidency, House and Senate less than a year ago. And a divided Republican Party struggles to build unity.

Watch: Leahy Questions Nielsen About Trump Comment

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Every day, cable news trots out talking heads, not to engage in useful political dialogue but to rile up the two party bases and score political points. Meanwhile, the traditional media, increasingly obsessed with Trump, seems more interested in sensationalism these days than news.

It doesn’t matter what issue drives the day because it’s almost never about one that matters to most people outside the Beltway. It’s always about issues that appeal only to the narrow interests of the party bases. America has grown weary of this dysfunctional Washington.

The pro-Trump elements of the Republican base and the hard-core resisters on the Democratic side revel in this daily political combat, but most of America has had it with a Washington that seems less and less connected to their concerns.

Why is this happening? Because D.C. is caught up in a system that rewards clicks and eyeballs over cooperation and compromise. Good governance takes second place to good copy and cable hits. Politicians on both sides who drive controversy through bombast and division are rewarded by their parties and the media, and this system has created a reality so skewed that average voters can no longer tell what’s important and what’s hype.

This is not something that arrived with Donald Trump. People have watched political discourse devolve into partisan food fights for years, driven by sensationalized news coverage. When talking heads don’t talk about issues they care about, when news coverage focuses on process rather than policies they care about, voters simply tune out or turn off — or as we saw in the last election, take a chance on a political newcomer with lots of baggage but who at least talked about the issues that mattered to them.

In 2016, voters came to the conclusion that their voices were simply not being heard by those they saw as the political elites of their parties, an impression driven, in part, by a media obsessed with process over substance. Voters decided change was worth the risk, and so Trump was able to beat out a raft of traditional Republicans for the nomination and then Hillary Clinton, who many working-class Democrats saw as elitist and out of touch.

A year later, in the eyes of many voters, change hasn’t come fast enough — an impression owed, in part, to a consistently negative media narrative. In a recent “Winning the Issues” survey, by 55 percent to 29 percent, voters said public discourse about politics was seriously headed off on the wrong track, while only 24 percent said they believed their voices were being heard effectively as opposed to 61 percent who did not.

Accentuate the negative 

As a result, both party brands are still in negative territory and Trump’s job approval rating is well below where it should be. While media coverage of the president has been historically negative, his often ill-timed and ill-conceived tweetstorms have played a significant role in keeping his job approval low.

This week’s fight over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which now threatens a budget deal, is a perfect example of the rewards system in action. As I write this Tuesday morning, a clearly angry Sen. Dick Durbin is grilling Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on the particulars of the now-infamous immigration meeting with the president. Durbin’s interrogation was more performance art than policy discussion, leaving Dreamers twisting in the wind but guaranteeing live cable coverage.

Earlier this week, Gallup/Knight released a survey of more than 19,000 adults on trust in the media, misinformation and control over information. It found that 66 percent of those 18 or older thought that news organizations being “too dramatic or too sensational in order to attract more readers or viewers was a major problem.”

They’re right.

How the budget/immigration battle ends is anyone’s guess. Will Dreamers get their status? Will the military finally get the funding it needs in an increasingly dangerous world? Will the government shut down? No one knows at this point but one thing we can count on is that coverage won’t be about substance, and sensationalism will be rewarded with plenty of air time and “ink” this week.

Watch: “Groundhog Day”

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.

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