Right-wing talk shows turned White House blue

By Paul Goldman and Mark J. Rozell
April 11, 2013

Talk isn’t cheap, as Republicans have learned. The conservative talk show culture is proving expensive for GOP presidential hopefuls.

Since Rush Limbaugh’s 1992 bestseller “The Way Things Ought to Be,” his conservative talk show politics have dominated GOP presidential discourse – and the Republicans’ White House fortunes have plummeted. But when the mainstream media reigned supreme, between 1952 and 1988, Republicans won seven out of the 10 presidential elections.

Conservative talk show hosts and Fox News blame the “lamestream” national media’s “liberal bias” for the GOP’s poor showing since 1992. Yet the rise of the conservative-dominated media defines the era when the fortunes of GOP presidential hopefuls dropped to the worst levels since the party’s founding in 1856.

It was when most Americans got most of their information from network news programs, which took their lead from what conservatives labeled “liberal” newspapers, that the GOP held the White House. Yet the right regularly accused the mainstream news media of colluding to turn the public against conservative nominees.

Is it all a coincidence that Democrats’ fortunes reversed as Limbaugh and his imitators gained influence?

Despite Limbaugh’s ridicule, in 1992, Bill Clinton won more electoral votes than any Democratic challenger in 60 years. In the previous six presidential elections (1968-1988), the Republicans had won five times – all but one by an electoral landslide. Since conservative media began to flourish, only once (2004) has the GOP candidate captured more than 50 percent of the popular vote. And that candidate, President George W. Bush, had the lowest re-election results of any conservative chief executive in U.S. history.

On the other hand, between 1996 and 2008, with conservative media ascendant, four different Democratic standard-bearers in successive elections – Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry and Barack Obama – combined for a majority of the popular vote. Democratic nominees  had never enjoyed this level of serial success. In 2012, Obama won re-election in a second majority-vote victory – the first Democrat to do so since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Coincidence again?

“Some things are just too coincidental to be a coincidence,” as Yogi Berra once said. The famed Yankee catcher offers insight into why the new media pitch contributes to the GOP striking out.

Network news sought a mass audience, unlike the niche-programming of today’s cable and radio talk shows. So the network news philosophy focused on fact-based reporting, homogenized for the broadest possible audience – not opinion, which could prove divisive, driving away some potential viewers.

The GOP’s “rally ’round the flag” Cold War anti-communist conservatism was similarly based on a nationalizing formula. So the network economic model and the Republican political equation were a perfect fit.

When the Cold War ended with the Soviet Union’s collapse, the Republican formula lost its philosophic basis. Is it just another coincidence that the GOP’s best showing since the collapse of Cold War conservatism  was when Bush could use a nationalizing theme – the threat of terrorism – to win the Republicans’ only recent popular vote majority?

The conservative talk show culture has contributed to today’s new-media fragmentation, which has been so detrimental to GOP presidential hopes. Why is this happening? It’s all about free-market economics.

The more strident and doctrinaire a talk show, the bigger the financial rewards can be for host and sponsor. Programs prosper by capturing a small but deeply loyal slice of the mass audience. This economic model would have decimated national network news in its heyday – as we can now see.

The conservative media powers blame GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s defeat on his inability to rally conservative groups. They claim he failed to focus on their issues. However, in championing  the niche special-interest groups over a broader national prism, conservative talk show hosts are fragmenting the electorate

This has never been an effective strategy for Republicans. It is Democrats who have been more successful with it, as Roosevelt proved with his New Deal coalition.

Contrary to talk show revisionist history, the “mainstream media” proved the GOP’s best friend for several generations. ABC, CBS and NBC Nightly News worked for GOP presidential candidates – convincing voters to see elections through a wide prism.

Conservatives delighting at the influence of their favorite talk show hosts and the decline of the mainstream media have missed this crucial modern political lesson: The GOP fared best in presidential politics through a nationalizing lens – not narrow-based ideological appeals.

Now, it could all be a coincidence; Yogi could be wrong. After all, he still claims to have tagged out Dodger legend Jackie Robinson, despite the umpire’s saying No. 42 had stolen home on his Hall of Fame rival in one of baseball’s immortal moments, in Game 1 of the 1955 World Series at Yankee Stadium.

 

PHOTO (Top): GOP PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEES: (Clockwise, starting from top left) Mitt Romney, Senator John McCain (R-Ariz), Senator Bob Dole, President George H.W. Bush.  REUTERS/Staff

PHOTO (Insert A): Rush Limbaugh speaks at a forum hosted by the Heritage Foundation in Washington June 23, 2006. REUTERS/Micah Walter

PHOTO (INSERT B): Supporters reach out to shake hands with President George W. Bush at a campaign rally in Pensacola, Florida August 10, 2004. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

PHOTO (Insert C): Yoga Berra REUTERS/Archive

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