Blame for the Weak Republican Field

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On talk radio, Fox News, and National Review Online, prominent voices are lamenting the dearth of strong GOP candidates for 2012. Do they understand the parts they've played in shaping the contest?

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The 2012 contest for the GOP nomination is vexing everyone who wants to see President Obama defeated. Right-leaning, civil liberties loving independents like me are depressed. The conservative base is nervous. Rush Limbaugh, Fox News commentator Juan Williams, and National Review's Rich Lowry all agree: it's a weak field. As leading lights of talk radio, cable news, and The House That Buckley Built, these men represent institutions unsurpassed in their influence on the American right. Perhaps it's too much to expect them to acknowledge their part in shaping the Republicans on offer. But in their own ways, talk radio, Fox News, and National Review have impacted the candidates that emerged this year, often for the worse. Right-leaning voters should grasp the pathologies their ideological allies have encouraged. Get angry. And demand better.

THE ROGER AILES FACTOR

Lots of commentators have remarked on the Fox News primary - the fact that numerous potential Republican candidates have lately drawn paychecks from the conservative cable news network. Newt Gingrich. Rick Santorum. Sarah Palin. Mike Huckabee. Roger Ailes has tremendous power to raise the profile of whoever he likes by giving them a highly paid gig on television - the candidates we get are determined even more completely by how skilled they are on screen -  and these people are suddenly operating partly under the entertainment industry's incentive system: they've got a substantial financial stake in increasing their ratings share among the network's right-leaning audience. The result is a lot of on the record commentary that isn't targeted at winning over the average voter, or telling the unvarnished truth about what would be best for the country. Should the eventual GOP nominee have a long history of Fox News appearances, expect to see their most absurd clips in Barack Obama's campaign commercials.

The issues Fox News candidates wind up addressing are different too. It's harder to pick and choose your topics in accord with your campaign strategy or their relative importance to the nation when you're contractually obligated to discuss whatever it is that is dominating the 24 hour news cycle. The platform these candidates enjoy also changes the tactics required of other GOP hopefuls, likely forcing them to make their own rhetoric more extreme in a bid to garner as much attention as their constantly televised adversaries. Finally, the conservative entertainment complex has made it more financially lucrative for some potential candidates to eschew running for higher office - or in the case of Sarah Palin, encouraged them to abandon their office before the end of their term. There is, of course, no reason for Ailes to rue the fact that his interests and the interests of the conservative movement diverge rather sharply, but it would be nice if more folks in the base were cognizant of that fact.  

THE HOTTEST MEDIUM

Rush Limbaugh is a tremendously talented broadcaster from Missouri who's spent his whole career being mocked and denigrated by an East Coast establishment that hasn't ever given him his due. Intelligent enough to connect with culturally confident small business owners, educated white retirees, and the wealthy suburban housewives who aren't put off by his casual misogyny, his fraught personal journey is what helps him to play so expertly to another segment of his audience: conservatives who suffer from the same cultural insecurity that eats at him. Hence the surfeit of listeners who reward his hyperbolic statements of self-regard, and so often mistake bullying and bombast for confidence. Most remarkable is the way that the talk radio audience rallies around their host whenever he is criticized, even when he deliberately provoked the attacks by saying something indefensible. Limbaugh is so adept at this cynical game that he admits to it. "I will have no problem getting people to listen to me who don't like me.  In fact, I have to keep giving them reasons," he said. "There are some people who listen precisely because they hate, precisely because they don't like.  You gotta keep fueling that."

Those inclined to dispute this portrait of Limbaugh should consider the way he is influencing the GOP race. "If you look at the way this field is shaping up, you've got Bachmann, you have Palin, Christie, Trump, any number of people here that you could coalesce behind," he told a caller on a recent program. In private, most Reagan conservatives acknowledge that three of those four possible candidates would be an embarrassment. It is obviously problematic that the most influential conservative in America is touting them. But precious few possess the guts or the incentive to take him on.

The talk radio host is also attempting to shape the campaign run by the future GOP nominee in ways that would be ruinous. Noting that most candidates tend to moderate their rhetoric in an attempt to win necessary votes from independents, Limbaugh asserted that he'd take a different approach - one he associates with Bachmann - were he given his druthers:

What would I do? If I were the nominee, I wouldn't hold back.  If I were the nominee, I'd go way beyond policy... I think he's got a different view of Americanism than we do.  He's got a whole lot totally different idea and understanding.  This guy's got a chip on his shoulder about the country. He doesn't believe in exceptionalism about America, doesn't believe in America's greatness.  

There's more.

"Do we say, does our nominee, does our campaign focus on portraying Obama as anti-traditional American values, do we say this guy is a socialist, this guy's models consist of Marx and Alinsky, do we go that way, do we point that out?" Limbaugh asks, whetting the appetite of his audience for a Bachmann-like campaign, as if he didn't notice it failing when Sarah Palin tried it circa 2008. Again, most conservative politicos understand the Palin/Bachmann approach would would be ruinous in a general election. But try getting a prominent one to publicly state that Limbaugh should stop encouraging this ruinous campaign strategy.

To be fair, other talk radio hosts are no better. Mark Levin, who calls himself The Great One and possesses a bombastic insecure streak different from Limbaugh's but no less severe, tells his audience that wildly unpopular Sarah Palin and national joke Christine O'Donnell are the kinds of Republican candidates who deserve to be taken seriously. At the same time, he dares to say that Mitch Daniels, a successful conservative governor and one of the most credible voices for fiscal conservatism in America, is insufficiently presidential to be taken seriously. A whole cadre of Mitch Daniels champions at places like National Review and Ricochet understand that this is folly. Do they directly challenge the obviously flawed analysis of an influential talk radio host? They do not - and so people like Sarah Palin is marginally more likely to run for president, and politicians like Mitch Daniels marginally less so.

THE FLAGSHIP'S CRISIS OF CONFIDENCE

National Review has a different mission than Fox News and talk radio - it isn't driven by ratings or quarterly profits, and so it ought to be a counter-influence to the several pathologies detailed above. Too often, however, its approach is to refrain from criticizing ideological allies on cable television and talk radio, even when they are tremendously influential and pushing the conservative movement in a direction that at least some writers at the magazine genuinely believe to be wrongheaded and counterproductive.

It isn't that the magazine lacks strong personalities. On fiscal matters, Kevin D. Williamson is permitted to dissent from prevailing conservative orthodoxy to offer hard truths about deficit reduction. On national security matters, Andy McCarthy is always forceful and occasionally combative in disagreements with colleagues on The Corner. Reihan Salam has carved out space for a policy blog admirably free of orthodoxies. But there is no one at the magazine to consistently and intelligently critique popular right-leaning entertainers from a conservative perspective. They should seek out that voice! To be fair, individuals at NR have attempted to change this. A writer named Jerry Taylor once critiqued talk radio. And Jim Manzi, the right's leading critic of cap and trade, offered a devastating critique of Mark Levin's amateurish work on climate change. Both men were met with criticism different in intensity and kind than anything typically seen at the magazine.

The magazine's leaders are in a difficult position. If it encouraged intelligent criticism of talk radio and Fox News whenever it was deserved, on the theory that such critiques improve a movement over time and help it to stay grounded in reality, some subscriptions would be canceled, and the folks in the blogosphere who already regard the magazine as having sold out would have more fodder. But every pundit grows intellectually clumsy and loses touch with facts unless they're criticized by someone whose dissent they're forced to take seriously, if only late at night when no one is watching.

Is the purpose of National Review to maintain comity among all conservatives? Or to provide intellectual leadership? There is no substantive defense of coddling the talk radio and cable news right - only a strategic one. How has that strategy worked out over the last fifteen years or so? If your writers won't push back against Rush Limbaugh's preference for a Bachmann strategy and Mark Levin's unfair denigration of Mitch Daniels, what trusted voice among conservatives will do so?

THE 2012 FIELD IS WEAK, and cable news, talk radio, and National Review, as the most powerful influences in movement conservatism, must share some of the blame. I'd ask anyone who disagrees to defend the strength of the field - or to offer an alternative explanation for why it is weak. Many of us would love an excuse to oust President Obama over his broken campaign promises and profligate spending.

Please, stop diminishing our chance at decent alternative.  


Image via Flickr user I Love Trees.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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