The Tea Party Gets Its Information From Enablers of Bushism

Fox News and talk radio allied with the GOP establishment during the aughts. Why do populist reformers still trust them?
More
Reuters

A faction of movement conservatives regards the Bush-era Republican Party as a reckless embarrassment because of its profligate spending, bungled wars, and embrace of K Street. Many of these people identify as supporters of the Tea Party and see themselves as reformist alternatives to an unprincipled GOP establishment. 

Another faction believes that the Tea Party can't be trusted to govern responsibly. A less ideologically rigid populist movement would have sought compromises with President Obama on health care and debt reduction, they argue, rather than refusing to negotiate and losing without any concessions. They see the shutdown and the threat of default as confirmation that the Tea Party picks irrational fights that ensure Americans will never entrust it with power. 

Renewal on the right will require conservatives to see that both critiques are correct. The Republican establishment was corrupt and unprincipled during the Bush years. And while a populist movement like the Tea Party is a needed corrective, there really are good reasons to doubt that Senator Ted Cruz and friends are now capable of governing responsibly, especially given their recent behavior. 

One observer who understands all this is Ross Douthat, whose analysis of the government shutdown and debt-ceiling fight has been smart, subtle, and insightful. His latest column explains why recent Tea Party behavior is so irrational--among other reasons, there was never any prospect of a useful victory. 

"Admittedly, just because the Republican strategy has been irrational doesn't make it inexplicable," he continued. "The trends that brought us to this point are clear enough: the discrediting of the Republican establishment during the Bush era; the rise of a populist right that often sees opposition as an end unto itself; the willingness of too many media figures, activists and politicians to stoke that wing's worst impulses; and the current Republican leadership's desire both to prevent an intraparty civil war and avoid a true national disaster like default."

As summaries go, that's stellar.

There is, however, an important caveat. Yes, Tea Party supporters regard the Republican establishment as having been thoroughly discredited during the Bush years. Yet they've continued to vest extraordinary trust in the cable-news and talk-radio personalities who spent the aughts slavishly supporting the GOP establishment. They get their information from erstwhile purveyors of pro-Bush propaganda, taking their cues come from the same people who enabled George W.

If the White House staffers, Washington think tanks, and establishment-media figures who enabled Bush-era excesses have all lost credibility, why not the movement-conservative talkers who carried water for the same flawed governance?

There is no better example than Rush Limbaugh.

Since so many Tea Partiers spent the Bush years nodding along to his daily radio program, they find it difficult to recall that he spent most of the aughts supporting the very Republican Party establishment that Tea Partiers now vilify. That doesn't change the fact that it happened.

Yes, he criticized the GOP here and there, but don't take my word for it when I say that he mostly carried water for them--it's actually the formulation that Limbaugh used himself in a rare moment of candor after Democrats made gains in the 2006 midterms. "I feel liberated, and I'm just going to tell you as plainly as I can why," he told listeners. "I no longer am going to have to carry the water for people who I don't think deserve having their water carried." The GOP had been behaving badly, but rather than level with his listeners, Limbaugh covered for them.

How thoroughly was he co-opted? How obsequious was his behavior toward the GOP? After an ego-stroking invite to the White House, here's how he characterized Karl Rove, the embodiment of Washington establishment Republicans:

I got an e-mail from Karl Rove who invited us all to the White House for lunch in the White House mess after the "24" forum at the Heritage Foundation on Friday morning, and that was a hoot, too, by the way, and let me say something about that, folks ...

Now, I've been in Karl's presence not a lot, three or four times, but never for this length of time. I can't tell you how brilliant and educated and informed the guy is. At lunch, he gave a veritable history lesson of the White House, of the White House mess, some of the characters that have worked there, some of the people that have been there 35 years in various jobs, and I notice this about people because I'm not able to do this and it's something I've always strived to be able to do. Not one stutter. I mean, he would speak for 20 minutes uninterrupted and not lose anybody's attention. Not one stutter, not one loss of his train of thought and at the same time totally captivating ... it was just indescribable to listen to Karl Rove go on and on about the influences that these various presidents and campaigns have had on him and his explanation of history ... 

A bunch of people were telling me this about Karl Rove. He is brilliant, and he has this brain that's just oozing with knowledge, and he's able to share his knowledge and his passions in a way that just keeps you spellbound without raising his voice, doesn't pound the table, doesn't get all that emotive. You're just in awe of the facts, the detail that he knows and possesses and is able to impart, again with no stutter and with no loss of his train of thought at all. So I just want to take some time here to thank Ginni and Clarence Thomas for the use of the justices dining room at the US Supreme Court. The Heritage Foundation could not have been better. It was a thrill to meet Secretary Chertoff and everybody, we ran into all kinds of people at the White House, Josh Bolten, the chief of staff, Andrew Card was there.

It was just a great, great time.

In November 2006, just before the midterms and long after most of the country had concluded that there were serious flaws in the Bush Administration's egregiously shortsighted foreign policy, Limbaugh had POTUS on the line, listened to his standard boilerplate about Iraq, the Middle East, and terrorism, and absurdly said, "Well, that is extremely visionary. One of the things, if I may make this personal, one of the many things I've admired about you is that you see down the road 20 or 30 years. You just illustrated that with your comment. What if down the road 20 years we look back to this time and with 20-20 hindsight realize we blew it. You're not, as far as it sounds to me, you're not going to let that happen. You're going to do whatever it takes to secure victory." 

Lest anyone doubt the cozy relationship between the Bushes and Limbaugh right up until the end, I invite them to read a transcript of the 2008 segment when George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Jeb Bush all called the program together to thank him for what he does. It's one thing to defend President Bush and to argue that there's nothing wrong with a conservative talk-radio host forgoing every chance to ask him tough questions while lavishing praise on his tenure. But if you're part of a populist reform movement that regards the Bush years as a terrible wrong turn for the right, believes that the press is too deferential to elected officials in Washington, and expresses righteous indignation when journalists cover for people in power, why would you regard Limbaugh as anything other than an untrustworthy sycophant for the GOP establishment? 

Perhaps because, having nodded along with Limbaugh for eight years, it would be a blow to confront the fact that all along you were also blind to Bush's excesses, and your blind partisan loyalty played a part in enabling all that you presently decry. 

Theories like that don't endear me to Tea Partiers. They like to think of themselves as having opposed Bush's excesses all along, even if they voted for him twice, spent the time when Republicans were in power criticizing Democrats exclusively, and didn't take to the streets in protest until Bush left office. 

But I don't bring all this up to take the Tea Party down. I want an improved version of it to succeed. In order for that to happen, its members need to understand how talk radio and Fox News enabled the excesses of the Bush Administration, because as surely as ideological propaganda and misinformation blinded the conservative establishment to its own flaws during the Bush years, it is blinding populist reformers to their flaws and excesses today. And if against all odds they returned to power, and then grew corrupt, as ruling parties tend to do in Washington, D.C, does anyone doubt that Fox News and talk radio would once again carry water for their partisan allies? If so, you're naive. 

Douthat says toward the end of his column:

It's clear, right now, that the populists can't be trusted not to drive their party into a ditch. But neither can Republican leaders just declare war on their own base, as some moderates and liberals would have them do.

I wonder what he means when he says that Republicans can't "declare war" on their own base. Does telling the base that they're being misinformed, badly advised, and manipulated by Fox News and talk0radio hucksters count as a declaration of war? It's true that the base still isn't ready to hear that message. Conservatives have denounced me every time I've repeated it going back to 2008.

That's okay. I intend to keep trying.

Right now, it doesn't matter how obsequiously Rush Limbaugh enabled the now-discredited Bush-era Republicans, or how much contempt Roger Ailes showed for movement conservatives when he kept obvious huckster Glenn Beck on the air for so long, or how disastrously talk radio advice has worked out for the House GOP. Movement conservatives stay loyal, and partly for that reason, they fail.

They need information from people who aren't misleading them daily.

Jump to comments
Presented by

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.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

'Stop Telling Women to Smile'

An artist's campaign to end sexual harassment on the streets of NYC.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

Just In