Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on anything. Democrats call the Republican presidential field a “clown car” with Donald Trump driving, while Republicans prefer the metaphor of a “runaway train” with a multi-candidate scrum to seize the wheel. The real problem the GOP has though is that it is being run by radio talk show hosts.
That is the takeaway from Jackie Calmes, “They Don’t Give a Damn About Governing:” Conservative Media’s Influence on the Republican Party published recently by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard. Ms. Calmes, a national correspondent for the New York Times, focuses on talk radio and not just Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity but regional hosts who take advantage of technology to spread their message. And no, they don’t care at all about governing.
Ms. Calmes view is consistent with that of Jeff Berry and Sarah Sobieraj’s The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility. However the “They Don’t Give a Damn” thesis concentrates less on the business factors that make outrage radio so lucrative than the power exerted by hosts over elected officials. Conservative (but realistic) congressional veterans like Mitch McConnell and John Boehner are forced into playing losing hands knowing they will eventually have to fold. Radio talkers and their listeners not only won’t accept half a loaf, they won’t take 9/10 of a loaf. If Republican congressmen don’t toe the radio talker line they are pilloried on radio, triggering massive phone and email contacts from angry “purist” constituencies, and threatened with primary opposition.
A few examples from the paper: earlier this year Republicans threatened to withhold funding for Homeland Security unless President Obama withdrew his executive order on immigration. A sure loser, and the leadership caved in by March. Then there are the serial attempts in the House – over fifty thus far – to repeal Obamacare. Plus the sporadic efforts to unseat Boehner as Speaker. Berry and Sobieraj recall that in 2011 the Republican leadership basically got all it wanted from the president on the debt ceiling, only to have radio talkers provoke “the base” until the Republicans pulled out of their own deal. It goes on. Conservative media have a large role in setting the GOP’s agenda, but as these examples show, they don’t achieve much. That is not a caution to them however, but a reinforcement of the notion that the Republican Party leadership is betraying true conservative values. Or as one longtime Republican congressional aide told Ms. Calmes, “it’s playing to the base, but the base doesn’t’ live in reality.”
The right wing talk industry is far flung but Calmes goes beyond the well-known regulars and spends time discussing Steve Deace, a host whose motto is “Fear God, Tell the Truth, Make Money.” Hosts like Deace find Limbaugh and Fox News not conservative enough, and their following is growing. Deace has become especially powerful because he is based in Iowa, where Christian evangelicals play a large role in the first in the nation Republican presidential caucuses.
In 2008 Deace went after Mitt Romney, a candidate he saw as a mushy moderate. His show sounded like a daily three hour advertisement for Mike Huckabee, who eventually won the caucuses. Iowa political veterans credit Deace for playing a substantial role. He is also allied with Bob Vander Plaats, leader of the politically powerful evangelical group The Family Leader. Both spurned Romney in 2012, Deace with Newt Gingrich and Vander Plaats with Rick Santorum, who won the caucus. Deace is now ranked by Talkers magazine as 63rd among its 100 top talk-radio hosts. (Limbaugh is number 1 and Howie Carr is 15th, to give you some idea). Deace brags about the Republican candidates who have made the pilgrimage to seek his favor; although one candidate he and many other conservative hosts disdain is Jeb Bush.
Basically the GOP lacks the firm hand of party leadership. A recent Politico article cites ideological divisions and the willingness of billionaires to fund even marginal presidential candidates. But also, as one party official explained:
Tune in, folks.
Because we have something in the Republican Party that the Democrats don’t have to deal with: a multibillion-dollar business in TV, political punditry and books and talk radio—we built up a ton of personalities, people that you guys in the media think are off the radar have been quietly gaining power. A whole slew of folks think they can, and should, run the party.