The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As GOP buckles down on health care, conservative media loses interest

Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh. (Ron Edmonds/AP)

On Tuesday, the fate of the Republicans’ attempt to undo the Affordable Care Act dominated news out of Washington. Phones rattled with alerts about the decision to delay a vote until mid-July. Camera crews jostled for shots of senators meeting with President Trump, then boarding a bus that took them past jeering protesters.

A viewer tuning into Fox News that night hardly saw any of it.

The network’s prime-time shows, ratings kings of cable news, ignored the health-care story. Fox’s 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. shows began with stories about a sting video that caught a CNN producer dismissing his network’s coverage of Russia and the 2016 election. “The Five,” Fox’s 9 p.m. show, began with the “bombshell” news that President Barack Obama had said — in October 2016 — that it would be “impossible” to rig the election. Nine minutes were spent on the Senate bill before a segue way into the CNN story.

The lack of “Obamacare repeal” coverage, unthinkable just six months ago, reflected a general decline of conservative interest in what had united Republicans for seven years. Conservative grass-roots groups have either ignored the latest health-care details, like Americans for Prosperity, or lobbied against the bill, like the Club for Growth.

McConnell is trying to revise the Senate health-care bill by Friday

Meanwhile, the White House and a symbiotic conservative media have largely moved on to other topics of media bias and cultural warfare. Fox’s multiple segments on the CNN sting came after White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters to watch it. Rush Limbaugh, whose dominant talk show was live during the Senate news, barely mentioned it at all.

“It’s not that surprising,” said Charlie Sykes, a former talk radio host from Wisconsin who has condemned what he sees as a move toward tribalism on the right. “You look at the trajectory of conservative media and it’s not been policy-oriented for a long time. It’s about whether you get the win or not. There’s nothing for Rush Limbaugh to sex up about a bill that’s neither repeal nor reform.”

It was not always like that — not when it came to “Obamacare.” Coverage of the bill’s passage, at the height of the tea party movement, was generally robust, if focused on details that irritated Democrats. (Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi’s infamous promise that people would “know what’s in the bill” after it was passed was about “the fog of controversy” churned up by conservatives.)

As a grass-roots movement, the tea party has largely disappeared or shifted its focus to states, where it has won real victories against the ACA. Since the start of the year, it has been outnumbered by “resistance” activists who continue to crowd town hall meetings and rally outside of congressional offices. Despite the struggles of the repeal bill, pro-repeal protesters have been rare.

“It’s pretty quiet,” said Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), one of the few Republican members of Congress who has held and advertised open town hall meetings — which have been swarmed by Democrats. “There’s some hope that we will be able to change this on a wholesale level; other folks are saying no, the handwriting’s on the wall. It’s a fairly one-sided political equation in my district and in the districts I’m familiar with.”

Coverage on Fox News has captured the shift in real time. On the network, the only one that has scored presidential interviews this month, the repeal fight is covered as a priority of President Trump that his allies in Congress are doing a poor job of managing. In a friendly weekend interview, Fox contributor Pete Hegseth framed the health-care fight as a battle between unhinged Democrats and a careful president. He asked just one question about the bill itself: “Are Republican senators doing enough to have your back to get that health-care bill through?”

On Wednesday morning, “Fox and Friends” devoted just a few segments to the bill, all of them framed around a process that was unfair to the president.

“They had one job — repeal Obamacare!” said conservative columnist Michelle Malkin in the day’s first segment on the Senate news. “That’s it! And it’s fairly clear to most Americans what repeal means.”

The network’s stable of reporters and pundits lit into Republicans for failing the president. “How many stories have we heard in the last week about how Mitch McConnell’s going to get this done, how he’s a master technician?” asked “Fox and Friends” anchor Steve Doocy. “When push came to shove, and we got closer and closer, he had so many members of his caucus say they didn’t even want to vote on having a vote!”

“I could not believe that Susan Collins went out of the way to diss the president,” added co-anchor Brian Kilmeade.

Griff Jenkins, a color reporter for the network, appeared in a later segment to warn that Republicans might face consequences for their delay. “They’re going home to parades and barbecues where they’re going to get an earful of ‘why can’t you just get it done?’” he insisted.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is trying to send a new version of the Republican health-care bill to the CBO before the July 4th recess. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

There’s little evidence for that risk. Since the House first introduced its “repeal” bill, voters have recoiled from it. A new Quinnipiac Poll, released Wednesday, found just 37 percent of Republicans approving of the repeal effort, by far the biggest source of support in any voter group, and still underwater.

The GOP’s health-care bill is political kryptonite

There was more conservative energy behind the stories Fox did cover on Tuesday night. The CNN story, sparked by a retracted report on Russia and Trump and inflamed by the sting video, sprawled across multiple segments; Sean Hannity, the 10 p.m. host, reported it as a “news alert.” Tucker Carlson’s 8 p.m. show featured the first interview with Charles Murray, the conservative intellectual, since he was shouted out of a speech at Middlebury College. “The Five” spent as much time on health care as it did in a later segment about the job effects of Seattle hiking its minimum wage to $15 per hour.

When the show’s hosts discussed health care, it was largely a contest of who could roll their eyes the fastest at criticism of the bill.

“They really think that these Republicans want to kill, what, 100,000 people — everybody’s going to die, it’s murder and mayhem, just to give the top one percent richest people a bit of a tax break?” said “The Five” co-host Kimberly Guilfoyle. “That just makes absolutely no sense.”

Coverage of whether Republicans can “win” on health care, Sykes noted, had long ago surpassed coverage of what was in the bill itself.

“Maybe we’ve reached peak hypocrisy,” Sykes said. “Having spent years attacking Obamacare, it may be a bridge too far for conservative talkers to urge Republicans to do it faster and with less transparency. How do you do a talk show saying: Hey, it’s great that they did in secret! It’s great — no hearings.”