Conservative Media Overruled The GOP's Own 2012 Autopsy -- And The 2016 Rhetoric About Immigrants Proves It
Blog ››› ››› CRISTINA LOPEZ
A February 27 piece in The New York Times illustrated how the Republican Party has allowed right-wing media to play a gatekeeper role on immigration issues.
The paper reported that legislators working to pass immigration reform in 2013 had to seek support from media mogul and executive co-chairman of Fox News' parent company Rupert Murdoch, Fox News chairman Roger Ailes and conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, but even those entreaties didn't win the backing of conservative pundits. Fringe media players attacked the legislation, spurring Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who was helping with the effort, to back away from the issue, The Times reported. Now, the 2016 election is marked by the same anti-immigration rhetoric emblematic of right-wing media figures -- an approach that runs counter to both national opinion and the pro-inclusivity strategy the GOP laid out after its 2012 presidential election loss. That's of no consequence to right-wing media, whose fortunes aren't tied to GOP electoral success, but it could be devastating for immigrants in this country.
According to The Times, Rubio and other co-sponsors of the 2013 immigration reform bill -- known as the "Gang of Eight" -- knew that they needed to get Murdoch and Ailes on board to give their legislation "a fighting chance at survival." Aware of the eroding trust among their viewership -- which lately, as reported by CNN's Dylan Byers, doesn't think Fox News is "conservative enough" -- Murdoch and Ailes advised the legislators to also seek the blessing of Limbaugh, who "held enormous sway with the party's largely anti-immigrant base." The New York Times reported on February 27:
Their mission was to persuade Rupert Murdoch, the owner of the media empire, and Roger Ailes, the chairman and chief executive of its Fox News division, to keep the network's on-air personalities from savaging the legislation and give it a fighting chance at survival.
Mr. Murdoch, an advocate of immigration reform, and Mr. Ailes, his top lieutenant and the most powerful man in conservative television, agreed at the Jan. 17, 2013, meeting to give the senators some breathing room.
But the media executives, highly attuned to the intensifying anger in the Republican grass roots, warned that the senators also needed to make their case to Rush Limbaugh, the king of conservative talk radio, who held enormous sway with the party's largely anti-immigrant base.
The Gang turned to Rubio to reach out to Limbaugh, as The Times reported, but the lobbying was unsuccessful; right-wing media launched an offensive against the push for immigration reform and against Rubio personally. Despite the Gang of Eight's appeals specifically against the label, right-wing radio continued to attack the bill as "amnesty." Radio host Laura Ingraham slammed Rubio, saying that unless he walked back his support for the bill, he would "rue the day that he became the Gang of Eight's poodle." Similarly, conservative pundit Michelle Malkin stated that he should move away from the immigration bill. Breitbart News also demanded that Rubio vote against his own bill. Right-wing media not only effectively sank the bill, but their criticism so deeply impacted Rubio that he has spent a considerable amount of time during his presidential campaign running as far as possible from the immigration positions he once espoused, to the gloating satisfaction of conservative radio pundits.
The rift between factions of conservative media has continued to deepen as the 2016 campaign has progressed, fueled in part by the polarizing presence of front-runner Donald Trump. After The Times published its piece, Rush Limbaugh tried to assuage his listeners. Limbaugh said he never even considered helping Rubio and the Gang of Eight on the immigration initiative. He portrayed the article as an attempt to "drive this wedge between" him and his loyal following by casting doubts on the purity of his anti-immigrant credentials.
The way right-wing media relentlessly torpedoed the reform -- and Limbaugh's need to wear his opposition to immigration as a badge - demonstrates how conservative media has effectively obliterated the space for a compassionate approach to immigration policy. And that explains why the tone of the 2016 Republican presidential campaign has been marked by anti-immigrant rhetoric and extremism.
The campaign's current anti-immigrant vitriol is a far cry from the goals the Republican Party espoused after its defeat in the 2012 presidential elections. After Mitt Romney's loss, strategists and campaign experts questioned the GOP's dependence on the right-wing media bubble: Keith Appell labeled it the "GOP's choir-preaching problem," while Mike Murphy asked that the party stop embracing viewpoints lifted from "Rush Limbaugh's dream journal." The Republican National Committee published the Growth & Opportunity Project -- more commonly known as the "autopsy" -- in which inclusion and a change in tone were deemed essential components of the road map toward 2016.
And yet, the stark contrast between the road map's goals and the party's current anti-immigrant discourse demonstrates that Republican candidates will side with right-wing media over the party's own goals, even when doing so runs counter to the will of a majority of Americans:
Right-wing media's strong influence on the GOP is likely to continue driving the party toward stances that alienate Latinos and other minorities. As Vox's David Roberts pointed out in a July 30, 2015, piece, because right-wing media's audience is mostly white and male, these outlets have no incentives to soften their policy positions or lessen the vitriol toward ethnic and racial minorities. And while changing demographics are lessening the dominance of the white/male constituency in general elections, right-wing media doesn't need to win elections to be profitable. According to Roberts:
The problem is that right-wing media is in no way dependent on the political success of the GOP. In fact, it's almost the opposite: The more the party establishment fails to deliver on the far right's (wildly unrealistic) demands, the more the audience feels betrayed, and the angrier it gets. That means more clicks, more phone calls, more engagement. It is to right-wing media's great benefit for the party to engage in a series of dramatic, doomed protest gestures like shutting down the government or attempting to repeal Obamacare for the 47th time. It stokes the outrage machine.