The Effect of the Right-Wing media: the end of moderation in the GOP?

Posted on September 8, 2010 by

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David Brigham

September, 9 2010

Before John McCain won the nomination by the Republican Party to run for the presidency in 2008 I would have described McCain as a moderate conservative.  In the 2000 election he described members of the religious far-right as “agents of intolerance.”  He has long supported campaign-finance reform, an effort for which I had some respect for him in the past.  McCain has long been pro-life: “He voted against family planning, he voted against the freedom of access to clinic entrances … He voted against funding for teen pregnancy-prevention programs, and making sure that abstinence only was medically accurate.” He has also been strongly for the rights of gun owners and against most forms of gun-control.  In 2005 McCain co-sponsored a bill with Ted Kennedy that would have comprehensively reformed immigration in the United States.

It seems to me that this whole thing started with the McCain-Kennedy bill in 2006.  Though admittedly this has been brewing for some time longer than this, and likely can be traced back much farther than a mere few decades.  Right-wing talk radio and FOX news pundits attacked McCain and former president Bush for trying to pass what they referred to as an “amnesty” bill for illegal immigrants: a bill, they said, that would reward people who had broken the laws of the United States by entering illegally and which would give them a path to citizenship.  At the same time there were rallies around the country by immigrants and those who sympathized with them to support the immigration reform bill.  In the disunity of my own memory I cannot recall whether or not the rallies in support of the bill caused the uproar on right-wing talk radio; whether the bill itself did this; or whether the uproar on right-wing talk radio caused the rallies.  In any case I personally recall listening to right-wing talk radio quite a bit at the time and remember the amount of venom that was spit upon McCain and Bush for the supposed amnesty bill.  The result was that the right-wing pundits got their way; the people rose up in protest and the bill was killed before it even reached a vote in the Senate.

A little less than two years later a similar phenomenon occurred.  McCain had won the nomination for a presidential bid by the GOP.  The same rumblings in the right-wing media emerged: all of the stances that McCain had taken in the past began to come back to haunt him as radio hosts like Shawn Hannity, Mark Levin, Michael Savage, Rush Limbaugh, and their ilk started shrieking that conservative voters could not trust McCain because of his previous support for immigration reform, his unclear stance on abortion (a misperception as argued here), and various other complaints.  The general battle-cry was that McCain was not a real conservative and that if elected, well, it was unclear exactly.  All they knew was that he differed from them on at least one issue (immigration) and therefore could not be trusted.

I watched with unease as McCain drifted steadily to the right on almost every issue.  He backpedaled on immigration, embraced the evangelical ministers that he had previously called “agents of intolerance,” and reaffirmed all of his long-held conservative values, lest they be called in to question by the right-wing media.  Yet this was still not good enough for the right-wing talk show hosts: they trembled with fear at the prospect that McCain might pick someone moderate on abortion for his vice-presidential running mate.  The two prospective candidates at the time seemed to be former mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani, or Senator Joseph Lieberman.  Guiliani had long been pro-choice, and had just changed his stance in time for the election, while Lieberman had long been against abortion and had only changed his stance to pro-choice in the 2004 presidential election.

And then there was Palin.

When McCain chose Sarah Palin for his running mate it immediately pleased right-wing talk radio and energized the GOP base.  For a short while it looked like McCain had a real shot at winning the presidency.  Polls started turning in his favor, money started flowing in, and the media really seemed to adore Palin.  Then along came the Katie Couric interview: people started learning what Sarah Palin really thinks about the world, and the polls started turning against McCain.  I could write a long diatribe about Sarah Palin’s personal beliefs, strengths and weaknesses, but for my purposes here it is enough to note that her beliefs were (and are) far to the right of the political mainstream in America.

In my view McCain’s nomination by the GOP was indicative of a moderation in the politics of the right.  As I have demonstrated this moderation was attacked by the right-wing media and McCain felt forced to move his views to the right to appease them.  In many conversations that I have had the nomination of Sarah Palin as McCain’s VP pick was the moment that many people decided that they could not support McCain.  I argue that McCain was on a track moving right of center the whole time, and that Palin, rather than some mistake on his part, was actually the logical culmination of McCain’s decision to assuage the worries of the right-wing media and thus appeal to the GOP base.

The problem arose for McCain when Sarah Palin’s beliefs became more public.  While Palin was great for energizing the GOP base her belief system appalled independent and moderate voters.  For the GOP the math could not have been worse: after a long trudge from some semblance of moderation (as I have argued we saw with McCain at the outset), the GOP altered their message to appeal to their base and alienated moderate voters.  To be fair this analysis is simplistic; there are a number of other reasons that can be ascribed to McCain’s loss to Obama in 2008, however I believe that this analysis carries an important warning for the GOP and for the Democrats: that their primaries are not the general election, and that a candidate that appeals only to their base may not be viable to win a broader election.

This analysis has a particular bearing on this November’s election because the Tea Party movement has overthrown candidates in a number of races throughout the country; and like the movement to the right that I suggest happened in the McCain campaign, this was broadly fueled by the right-wing media.  However, this time it is bigger!  The initial movement to the right that I suggest was fueled primarily by right-wing radio.  This time around it is an entire cable channel, FOX news, in addition to right-wing radio and the right-wing blogosphere, which is fueling the movement.  In my opinion this is not a different movement, but rather a continuation of the politics of the Right that moved McCain’s campaign to the right.  The question is what will happen now that primaries are over and the public is beginning to hear what these Tea Party candidates are all about?  Will moderate voters be appalled by how far right some of these candidates are, or is the power of the Tea Party movement such that they will be elected regardless?

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