In just the last 12 months, the balance of power within the conservative movement has completely swung in the direction of the right-wing press, which is stoking the flames of the GOP civil war.
It's not easy to flip a congressional district that's been Republican since the late 1800s, but after being willingly hijacked by the right-wing media -- after getting steamrolled by Fox News' embrace of third-party candidate Doug Hoffman -- Republicans managed to hand Upstate New York's 23rd District to Democrats last week. And they did it just in time for the newly elected Democrat to help (barely) push health care reform through the House of Representatives during Saturday night's historic vote.
Doug Hoffman was, first and foremost, a media candidate (a media creation), which means we are entering a very new and different realm in American politics. We're entering a sort of Fox News Era where media outlets -- where alleged news organizations -- essentially co-sponsor political campaigns. We've moved well beyond the time when Fox News, for instance, leaned right and gave conservative candidates more air-time and tossed them lots of softball questions. We're now watching unfold a political reality where Fox News literally selects candidates and then markets them through Election Day.
There's a reason Hoffman described Glenn Beck as his “mentor” and pledged his “sacred honor” to uphold the “9 Principles and 12 Values” of Beck's 9/12 Project. There's a reason Sean Hannity wanted to “declare” Hoffman the election winner, and why Fox News' on-screen graphic read “Conservative Revolution?” when Hoffman was being interviewed (i.e. prematurely crowned) by Hannity on the eve of Election Day.
Hoffman's outsider bid, originally opposed by the Republican Party, was a media production, plain and simple, which means his loss was a media loss, as well.
Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich had it right when he told The Washington Times that Hoffman's rise as a third party candidate was the “result of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Fox News.” Gingrich, who originally opposed Hoffman's candidacy, added: “This was not an isolated amateur; this is an entire movement.”
Indeed, it's a media movement that's doing it's best to obliterate the line between journalism and politics.
As I've been noting for some time, Fox News has transformed itself into the Opposition Party of the Obama White House. So it makes sense that, as a purely partisan player, Fox New would immerse itself in backroom horse-trading. It makes sense that rather than covering the campaigns and the candidates, Fox News would insert itself as a political player within Republican contests and throw its support behind a specific candidate, the way it did in NY-23.
The looming problem for the GOP, though, is that the right-wing media can't pick winners and stands poised to rip the Republican Party apart. (Did you notice how Limbaugh last week claimed “Newt” had “screwed the whole [NY-23] thing up” ?)
It's yet more evidence that during President Bush's pro-war tenure, far-right radio and TV talkers, along with fringe bloggers, convinced themselves they represented the mainstream -- the majority -- of the GOP. But they don't. They represent the radical CPAC wing of the GOP, and it shows on Election Day. We saw that in 2008, when bloggers and talkers opposed Sen. John McCain in the GOP primaries yet were completely unable to sway Republican voters in the process. In the immortal words of Republican strategist Mike Murphy, “These radio guys can't deliver a pizza, let alone a nomination.”
What's different now, though, is that the right-wing media have become even more powerful within conservative circles, while the Republican National Committee and traditional Republican leaders have receded even further into the background. (Does anyone really see Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as the leader of anything?) That power vacuum means it's Fox News that sets the conservative agenda in America. It's at Fox News where partisan strategies are hatched, rallies are marketed, and smear campaigns are launched. And it's Republican politicians and traditional Beltway professionals who are forced to play catch-up to the conservative media.
In other words, in just the last 12 months, the balance of power within the conservative movement has completely swung in the direction of the right-wing press, which is stoking the flames of the GOP civil war. It's a partisan press corps that no longer documents internal Republican squabbling; it initiates the infighting.
National political parties go through all kinds of evolutions; all kinds of natural expansions and contractions over time. (Barry Goldwater, for instance, oversaw perhaps the GOP's most radical contraction in modern times.) It's quite rare, though, for the catalyst of that change to be external media forces. Sure, permanent Beltway insiders such as Bill Kristol have routinely hopped back and forth between “the role of Republican flack and alleged journalist without changing even a comma in his prose 'style',” as columnist Eric Alterman noted last week.
But what we're seeing unfold in 2009 is something entirely different. This isn't a few conservative pundits dipping their toes into Republican political waters during election cycles and trying to generate an electoral wave. And this isn't like 1994 when AM talk radio morphed into an RNC echo chamber and helped spread the Republicans' anti-Clinton message.
This is a case where huge swaths of the conservative media, including television, radio, and online, have shed any façade of being journalists and embraced their king-making role. Or, if savaging a GOP candidate is what's needed, as was the case in NY-23 and Dede Scozzafava, then they'll do that as well.
Looking forward, it's inevitable that during the 2012 GOP Republican primary season, there will be, for the lack of a better term, a Fox News candidate in the field. There will be a far-right darling of the Tea Party movement (cough, cough, Sarah Palin) who has both the official (Limbaugh, Beck, Malkin) and unofficial (Fox News) endorsement of the right-wing media.
But will that do any good in the real world? Ask Doug Hoffman.
Beck, Hannity, Limbaugh, and Malkin, among others, all put their reputations on the line in NY-23, touting the contest as a referendum on the anti-Obama, Tea Party movement in America. And they lost, big time. Not unlike the way the same right-wing media leaders put their reputations on the line in early 2008 and went all-in against McCain in the South Carolina Republican primary. (FYI, McCain wasn't sufficiently conservative.) Result? McCain won the SC contest in a walk.
See a pattern here? Me, too. The Republican Party is now attached to a political movement -- a media-led movement -- that cannot win elections. It's a movement that cannot even win elections in traditionally red districts (NY-23) or in very red states (SC). By refusing to separate itself from media players who claim the president of the United States is a racist and a Nazi, the GOP may be assigning itself a permanent minority status.
And I'm sorry, but belated and feeble attempts by Republican leaders such as Rep. Eric Cantor to create the slightest glimmer of daylight between the GOP and the right-wing media aren't going to do the trick. (For the record, comparing health care reform to the Holocaust was the line Limbaugh and company recently crossed, according to Cantor. Good to know.) Republican politicians in 2009 have made it blindingly obvious that they lack both the courage to consistently stand up to the far-right media's hate merchants and the resources. Meaning, without the energy of the fringe activists who insist Obama is destroying America on purpose, the Republican Party would be virtually kaput today.
Disillusioned “Right Wing” blogger Rick Moran, recently bemoaning what he sees as the rise of an “anti-reason” movement on the far right, may have put it best when he asked, “What is it that possesses certain conservatives to fool themselves so spectacularly into believing that they can create a majority out of a minority?”
His definition of “anti-reason” conservatives, who now anchor the right-wing media, seemed dead-on, as well: "[T]hose who reject reality in favor of persecution complexes, wildly exaggerated hyperbole, and a frightening need for vengeance against their imagined 'enemies.' "
Moran actually penned that lament before the votes were counted in the NY-23 congressional race. And incredibly, the “anti-reason” fanatics Moran described were encouraged by the results in Upstate New York, which, in a strange way, actually made sense. Of course anti-reason conservatives would celebrate as a victory the fact that a district that hadn't elected a Democrat to Congress in nearly 150 years did so last week. Of course they'd announce that it was good news that by backing a candidate who did not even live in the district and who, according to a local newspaper editorial board, was woefully ill-informed about local issues, the movement had helped toss a Republican seat to the Democrats.
Anti-reason conservatives watched Hoffman go down in defeat and immediately announced they were going to target more Republican candidates, which means the right-wing media stand poised to unleash even more wingnuttery on the GOP establishment.
Grab the popcorn. This is going to be fun to watch.