Harvard Study Laments Conservative Media Destroying Republican Party

Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Last week, Jackie Calmes, national correspondent for the New York Times and Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School, released a study decrying conservative media’s influence on the direction of the Republican Party.

Complaining about the Republican majority’s failure to launch at the beginning of 2015—particularly their inability to shut down funding for President Obama’s executive amnesty—Calmes writes, “no drama could have better demonstrated that the leaders of the Republican Party do not fully control its agenda.”

What did? It was the nefarious conservative media, focusing incessantly on the bugaboo of immigration, according to Calmes. While in the aftermath of Mitt Romney’s devastating 2012 presidential defeat, Republicans called for immigration reform. Calmes says, “Two years later, Republicans’ positions and rhetoric on immigration could not be more contrary to that advice.”

Why? “Once allied with but now increasingly hostile to the Republican hierarchy, conservative media is shaping the party’s agenda in ways that are impeding Republicans’ ability to govern and to win presidential elections.” Characterizing such media as “new voices and scribblers,” Calmes quotes various vaunted Republican ThoughtLeaders, whining over the influence of the unwashed masses represented by the new media.

As proof of this complaint, Calmes specifically singles out Breitbart News and its focus on immigration enforcement. Calmes cites Rep. Steve King’s (R-IA) op-ed calling for the defeat of Speaker John Boehner in January; King explained, “If I could command presence on the front page of The New York Times, I’d certainly be happy about that and embrace it. But from a practical perspective, if we want to get a message out, we would be talking to Breitbart, we would be talking to The Washington Times, we’d be – aside from immigration – going to The Wall Street Journal.” Calmes also cites the prominence of Iowa radio host Steve Deace as a Breitbart contributor.

Calmes’s study reads like a non-stop whinefest from the Republican establishment over the newfound prominence of conservative media. Whereas before, Republicans could make promises and not be held accountable to them, now conservative media like Breitbart remember those promises and demand that Republicans carry them through. This, apparently, is too much to ask according to the ThoughtLeaders. “It’s not just talk radio, but the blogosphere, the Internet – they’re all intertwined now… [Borrowing money and funding government] are the things that leaders have to get done as part of governing,” tut-tuts former Republican top House aide Dave Schnittger, “as much as conservative media may hate it.”

One unnamed Republican aide complains, “There’s no money, ratings or clicks in everyone going along to get along… the loudest voices drown out the sensible ones and there’s no real space to have serious discussions.” Norman Ornstein of American Enterprise Institute says that today, the “John Birth Society types” run the conservative media and, by extension, “can move into the mainstream and actually hijack a major party.”

Matthew Dowd, a strategist for George W. Bush and favorite of ABC News (although, naturally, Calmes doesn’t mention this credential), believes that the Republican Party can’t moderate the way Democrats supposedly did in the 1980s and 1990s because Democrats “didn’t have to deal with a quote-unquote liberal media out there that was going to confront them every time they took a turn.”

Calmes blames conservatives, of course, for the losses of Mitt Romney and John McCain, even though by every statistical measure, conservatives showed up for both the 2008 and 2012 elections, and even though the establishment favored both those candidates over more conservative alternatives. And she claims that modern conservative media have become “kooks.” They’re kooks because they don’t agree with the “Republican insiders” that the party ought to change its positions on “gay rights, insurance for contraceptives, climate change and budget policy, for examples.”

Calmes then turns to the profitability of conservative media, arguing that ratings are down for talk radio, but profits continue because of alliances with advocacy groups. This, she suggests, represents some sort of corrupt arrangement, a Vast Right-Wing Media Conspiracy: “Such financial deals apparently continue, to the chagrin of establishment Republicans.” And those commentators who benefit from such deals, she writes, quoting Republican strategist John Feehery, “intimidate members of Congress.”

The entire study represents an elite lament for a time when the political aristocracy decided for Republican voters what their choices ought to be. Conservative media, Calmes says, destroyed that righteous formula. On the left, the argument goes, leftist media do not control Democrats in the same way. This ignores the fact that the left media are not relegated to MSNBC or DailyKos, as Calmes would have it—the left media include CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, and all the major press outlets. Were there no leftist pressure against Democrats, one would expect a heterogeneous party—instead, the Democratic Party is far more homogeneous than the Republican Party.

Naturally, Republicans are unhappy with the pressure from conservative media. Calmes writes:

The unanimity among establishment Republicans – many of them conservatives by the definition of anyone but purists – that rightwing media has become a big problem for the party, and their readiness to talk about it, was something of a surprise to this reporter of three decades’ experience in Washington. Of the establishment Republicans among several dozen conservatives interviewed, nearly all were flummoxed about how to moderate the party. Most expressed despair. The common hope was that the ultimate 2016 nominee could and would speak truth to power – the power, that is, of conservative media and their allies in the well-heeled advocacy groups.

Good luck. Calmes may be wrong about most of her study, most of all the supposed dictatorial power of a conservative media that has failed to nominate an alternative candidate in 2008 and 2012 or push Republicans into stopping Obamacare or executive amnesty. But she’s right that conservative media will not stop holding people accountable, no matter what the establishment Republicans would cram down on the base.

Ben Shapiro is Senior Editor-At-Large of Breitbart News and author of the book, The People vs. Barack Obama: The Criminal Case Against The Obama Administration (Threshold Editions, June 10, 2014). Follow Ben Shapiro on Twitter @benshapiro.


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