Last week marked the launch of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee’s conservative talk radio program, The Huckabee Show. It also marked a sea-change from this time last year, when Huckabee topped national polls as the leading contender for the Republican nomination.
Yet far from being an oddity, Huckabee’s twin tracks – candidate and commentator – have become a standard feature of Republican Party politics. These days, a revolving door exists between conservative media and Republican candidates.
Look at Fox News. It now houses both Huckabee and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, remainders from the 2008 election. For the 2012 race, Fox had to suspend the contracts of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum so they could launch their presidential bids.
The problem with this media-party merger isn’t the contractual relationship between Fox News and Republican politicians. It’s that the qualities that make a good ideologue-cum-entertainer aren’t the same qualities that make a good presidential candidate.
The most popular forms of conservative media – talk radio and cable opinion shows – favour shock and simplicity. They view politics as a moral battle in which compromise is capitulation, in which ideological consistency is not the hobgoblin of a little mind but a sure sign of a rising star.
Understanding the merger of conservative media and the Republican party helps us better understand the freewheeling circus the nomination race became this fall. The crazy-quilt cast of candidates was well-versed in a language honed by conservative media.
A quip about teleprompters here, a reference to Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals there, and any one of the candidates could find himself leading the polls. And just about all of them did. The Republican nomination race had eleven frontrunners, by far the most in recent history.
This year’s tumultuous primary was the end result of the merger of conservative media and Republican Party politics. The roots of that merger reach all the way back to 1964, the year Barry Goldwater became the Republican nominee.
Goldwater’s presidential candidacy was largely a product of conservative media. Clarence Manion, host of the right-wing radio program The Manion Forum from 1954 to 1979, single-handedly made Goldwater the face of modern conservatism with the book Conscience of a Conservative, which Manion conceived, pitched, published, and distributed.
Goldwater’s proposals – cutting off diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, making Social Security voluntary, ending the progressive income tax – were manna from heaven for conservatives adrift in a liberal age. The rest of the electorate, however, found them harder to swallow.
Unfamiliar with the language and grievances nursed in conservative media, most voters recoiled from Goldwater’s stances. He lost in one of the biggest landslides in American presidential history. The shellacking sprang directly from his candidacy’s origins. Forged in conservative media, it never broke out of that mould.
Both conservative media and the Republican Party learned from the Goldwater fiasco. The conservative journal National Review pledged from then on to support the most rightward electable candidate. The party, meanwhile, swung toward politicians with broader appeal.
Candidates, too, drew lessons from 1964. Conservative media clearly influenced the nomination process. Presidential aspirants knew they would need to reach out to them. The question was how close they could get without a spectacular Goldwater-esque flameout. In the next election, Republican Richard Nixon decided to court conservative media but not wed himself to them. That proved enough to win endorsements from Clarence Manion, National Review, and the newsweekly Human Events.
The relationship quickly went south, however. Nixon’s liberalism at home and pragmatism abroad alienated many in conservative media. The self-styled Manhattan Twelve, a dozen conservative leaders coming mainly from right-wing media outlets, issued a statement in 1971 publicly withdrawing their support. In 1972, they threw their energies into running a conservative challenger against Nixon in the primaries. To do so was not a betrayal of the party, they claimed, but “an act of loyalty to the Nixon we supported in 1968".
A more masterful and more conservative politician, Ronald Reagan, found the sweet spot between pragmatic politician and conservative media darling. Reagan came of age politically in the conservative movement and mingled regularly with people in conservative media. He excelled both at rhetoric and relationships, two keys to right-wing media success. Though as president he hiked taxes and grew government, his concerted efforts to win them over ensured people in conservative media muttered but never mutinied.
By the mid-1990s, however, the Republican Party and conservative media again started to merge as they had in 1964. This left much less room for the sort of compromise and flexibility Reagan exhibited.
We see this in talk radio host Rush Limbaugh’s rise. When the first President Bush lost his re-election campaign in 1992, Reagan wrote Limbaugh to say: “Now that I’ve retired from active politics, I don’t mind that you’ve become the number-one voice for conservatism in our country.”
The number-one voice for conservatism, yes, but in time Limbaugh would also become the number-one voice for the Republican Party. When Republicans swept Congress in 1994, they believed themselves so indebted to Limbaugh that they showered him with accolades. They made him an honorary member of the GOP’s freshman class, presenting him with a button that read “The Majority Maker.” After all, one congressman declared, “Surely he helped us become the majority!”
So they believed, and so they paid tribute. During his presidency, George W. Bush cultivated a close relationship with Limbaugh, and in return Limbaugh supported the administration. Though the Bush administration sank into unpopularity by 2006, Limbaugh stayed afloat. An early 2009 poll asked voters who led the Republican Party. The top response? Not a politician or an organiser or an activist, but Rush Limbaugh. The Republican Party and conservative media had fully merged.
That merger came at a cost. Limbaugh has become largely untouchable in Republican circles. In 2009, Republican Party chair Michael Steele called The Rush Limbaugh Show “incendiary” and “ugly.” Rush fired back the next day, and within hours Steele publicly apologised. The same dynamic came into play after Limbaugh called a law student a “slut” and a “prostitute” for her advocacy of the Obama administration’s contraception mandate. An unwillingness to cross Limbaugh led to the cringe-inducing spectacle of three presidential candidates refusing to deliver more than the most tepid of reproaches.
But the cost of this merger is far greater than Republican obeisance. The mingling of conservative media and the Republican Party accounts for why, with the U.S. mired in serious fiscal and foreign crises, so many unserious candidates rose to the top of the Republican field. As media-focused politicos, they could produce sound bites but not sound policy. Wary of attacks from conservative media, the remaining candidates have run so far right they now find themselves denouncing contraception and college education.
Despite the high price, the situation will remain unchanged until conservative media and the Republican Party return to their distinct and separate roles—one developing the ideas and messages of a movement, and the other doing the hard work of compromise central to the project of governing.