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.  

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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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