Two questions loom large in the aftermath of the first Republican debate of the 2016 election season. Will the Republican Party nominate a presidential candidate who by next November is viewed by a majority of Americans as a plausible choice for the White House–one whose character, political leadership skills, temperament, and views about America and its role in the world meet a threshold of acceptability? And just as importantly, will the Republican Party itself be trusted with control of all three branches of government given its sharp rightward turn ideologically and its high-risk, scorched-earth, no-compromise oppositional tactics during the Obama years?
Most of the press coverage has understandably focused on the first of these questions. Many of us wonder if Republican Party elites will once again succeed in nominating a candidate who by virtue of his or her personal traits and policy views can fully exploit their party’s opportunities in the coming general election. But it is not too early to begin asking whether what unites the seventeen aspirants for the Republican presidential nomination and shapes the party brand and agenda will limit its chances of regaining the White House or, if they nonetheless win the election, of governing successfully.
An excellent place to begin addressing the second question is a new paper by Jackie Calmes, national correspondent for The New York Times who was Joan Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School this past spring. Its title, “They Don’t Give a Damn about Governing,” is a direct quote from one of her Republican sources. The subtitle, “Conservative Media’s Influence on the Republican Party,” describes the focus of her impressive research, reporting, and analysis.
Calmes goes well beyond the familiar Fox News and talk-radio celebrities Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin and Laura Ingraham to chart an expanding world of web-based “news” sites and social media outlets closely aligned with far-right groups such as Heritage Action, Americans for Prosperity, Club for Growth and FreedomWorks. What began as a conservative insurgency nurtured and welcomed by the Republican establishment as a route to majority control of Congress has become a dominant force setting the party’s agenda and forcing repeated brinksmanship. This in turn impedes the Republicans’ ability to govern effectively and to win presidential elections.
She traces the evolution of conservative media from the end of World War II to the present, documenting a generational change enabled by new technology and business models. Her paper contains fascinating narrative on lesser-known personalities who have put themselves at the center of linkages between Republican activists and officeholders as well as case studies of why the Republican majority in Congress after the 2014 election has fallen well short of its stated objectives of restoring regular order and governing effectively.
Calmes searches for an equivalent liberal media but comes up mostly empty-handed. Her analysis of this striking difference between the ideological left and right sheds additional light on the broader asymmetric polarization between the parties.
It is easy, and certainly more professionally comfortable, for journalists as well as scholars to overlook the striking differences between the parties and instead place their primary emphasis during this political season on what can be a fascinating election game. But the half-life of many of these stories is very short and of dubious value to voters. Calmes wrestles with larger forces in our politics and governance in an enlightening and entertaining fashion. Last night’s debate reveals it is those broader forces–the radicalization of the Republican Party and the conservative media that so powerfully enforces it–which merit a full airing in the fifteen months before the general election. Her paper deserves a wide and careful reading.