To the chagrin of many on the right, I’ve been critical of much of the conservative media coverage in the 2012 Republican primary. Many right-wing outlets have fanned bizarre media conspiracy theories (Herman Cain was the victim of a racist conspiracy). They often circled the wagons around an embattled candidate rather than candidly cover his flaws. (How long did it take most of the right blogosphere to acknowledge that Texas Gov. Rick Perry was killing his candidacy in the debates?) Conservative blogs and pundits have obsessed over meaningless, early national polls. And with a few exceptions, conservative media have ignored some serious candidates (e.g., Rick Santorum) while objecting that the mainstream media are trying prematurely to determine the contours of the race.
But the worst trend has been to defend really dumb ideas put forth by some of the candidates. Really, do conservative pundits think that we need to repeal child labor laws to let young children work as janitors? If so, the right-wing media are as far removed from reality as the author of that brainstorm. And if, instead, they think it’s actually a daft and politically horrible suggestion, why have they played along?
Likewise, do conservatives really think it is a good idea for their nominee to reverse decades of U.S. policy and deny there is a Palestinian national identity? I asked former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams (no fair-weather friend of Israel) his reaction to Newt Gingrich’s pronouncement: “It is true that Palestinian nationalism is new, but so are Iraqi, Jordanian and Syrian nationalism; those nations were all created out of the Ottoman empire after the First and Second World Wars. What’s the point? There is a very broad consensus in Israel to separate from the Palestinians, so either they get a state — which is the position taken by Sharon, Olmert, and Netanyahu — or there would need to be some kind of Jordanian option. Newt should try playing statesman instead of playing historian.”
Playing historical one-upmanship may satisfy the candidate’s desire to be the smartest guy in the room, but it is not indicative of mature leadership. It’s certainly not comparable to Ronald Reagan’s predictive aspiration on the demise of the Soviet Union. (Our goal is not to eradicate Palestinian nationalism, as it was to end communism, and anyone who thinks Palestinian nationalism is going away is clearly delusional.) This sort of talk is not helpful in the least to Israel, to U.S.-Israel relations, or to the Republican Party and in fact concedes the entire ground of sensible pro-Israel policy to the other side. Yet the purportedly smart right-leaning punditocracy nods admiringly at Gingrich’s folly.
Turning to another candidate: Was importing a retirement scheme from Chile really a serious idea, or the sort of radio talk show flash that simply won’t fly in our lifetimes? When Herman Cain became a serious contender, conservative media outlets generally played along, as if this were a viable proposal.
The conservative media’s unwillingess to distinguish after-dinner bantering from reasonable conservative policy is problematic on several levels. First, it encourages more and more wackiness from candidates, one of whom will have to be the party’s presidential nominee. And second, it perpetuates an insular mind-set in the conservative movement that is fixated on (and elevates as its raison d’etre) attacking and being attacked by mainstream media.
Conservatives who spout such gimmicks are indulged by those whose job it is to cater to and entertain a certain segment of the conservative base. It is tolerated by meek pundits wary of getting crosswise from the base. What is missing is the sort of reasoned analysis and candidate vetting that is needed to make sure the party doesn’t go off the rails. And moreover, when some voices do pop out to challenge the silly festival, the reaction is often to holler and indulge in name-calling. (Mark Steyn joked regarding Newt Gingrich’s Palestine comments: “So, if you’re keeping score of who’s who on the Rino Squish list, it’s me, Krauthammer, Coulter, Tom Coburn and the Fatah Revolutionary Council.”)
This is not to say that hyperbole and provocation don’t have their place in American politics. But they cannot be the aim of a party that hopes to govern. The goal of the right’s only viable national political party, it seems too often forgotten, is to craft a conservative agenda generally acceptable to a center-right country. Conservatives should not be afraid to be bold, but they should be concerned about sounding like cranks. And the conservative media should worry about becoming nothing more than a cheering section for bombastic purveyors of silly ideas.