Just months after the election and the humiliation, everyone is again convinced that Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity and the rest possess real power. And the saddest thing is that even Republican politicians come to believe it. They mistake media for reality. They pre-emptively surrender to armies that don’t exist.
They pay more attention to Rush’s imaginary millions than to the real voters down the street. The Republican Party is unpopular because it’s more interested in pleasing Rush’s ghosts than actual people. The party is leaderless right now because nobody has the guts to step outside the rigid parameters enforced by the radio jocks and create a new party identity. The party is losing because it has adopted a radio entertainer’s niche-building strategy, while abandoning the politician’s coalition-building strategy.
The rise of Beck, Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and the rest has correlated almost perfectly with the decline of the G.O.P. But it’s not because the talk jocks have real power. It’s because they have illusory power, because Republicans hear the media mythology and fall for it every time.
This is delusional on several fronts. Brooks’ claim that the GOP is at the mercy of talk radio is totally undercut by his own column’s earlier observation about John McCain’s primary success, despite the longstanding bad blood between McCain and the pundits. But that’s not to say his other claim, that the talkers have no sway with the actual voters, is much better — just ask Harriet Miers, the United Arab Emirates, or the Republicans who wanted to ram amnesty through Congress (all issues talk radio sounded the alarm on) how far they got.
It’s interesting that Brooks attributes the GOP’s decline to the rise of Glenn Beck (who didn’t really hit it big until after Obama’s victory), Sean Hannity (who was a superstar well before any discernible GOP decline, and was doing his usual routine during Republicans’ Congressional gains in 2002 and both of George W. Bush’s victories in 2000 & 2004), and Bill O’Reilly (an independent with hawkish defense and law-&-order sentiments, but also a global-warming believer who spends half his time demonizing oil companies and treating any politician who might give him an interview with kid gloves), and not to what these supposedly-kowtowing Republicans actually did:
Bush and the Republicans spent massively, especially in Bush’s first term. We opposed that, mightily. The president’s most cherished initiative, probably, was the Faith-Based Initiative. We opposed that. Then there was his education policy: No Child Left Behind. We opposed that (mainly on grounds that it wrongly expanded the federal role). He had his new federal entitlement: a prescription-drug benefit. We of course opposed that. He imposed steel tariffs—for a season—which we opposed. He signed the McCain-Feingold law on campaign finance—which we opposed. He established a new cabinet department, the Department of Homeland Security. We opposed that. He defended race preferences in the University of Michigan Law School case; we were staunchly on the other side. He of course proposed a sweeping new immigration law, which included what amounted to amnesty. We were four-square against that.
I am talking about some things that were very dear to Bush’s heart, and central to his efforts—and self-image, as a leader. NR, the conservative arbiter, opposed those things. The Republican party, by and large, supported them—with one glaring exception: the immigration push.
He might also do well to consider that McCain’s failed presidential bid was hardly in the mold of a Limbaugh broadcast, or, if he’s really feeling intellectually curious, he could ask himself what effect a primary field divided among multiple candidates with partial claims to certain aspects of conservatism (Romney on economics, Huckabee on social issues, Giuliani on terrorism, etc.) might have had.
David Brooks is dead wrong, but we shouldn’t be surprised that David Frum is enamored — these days Frum dreams of a new conservatism that looks suspiciously like liberalism, and spends more time hyperventilating about TV personalities’ occasional missteps than extremists in the White House.
(Cross-posted at The HF Blog.)