For the conservative media, the task of whipping Republicans into line isn’t limited to the official campaign. During the debate over health care reform, former public supporters of the individual mandate—including presidential candidates-to-be such as Newt Gingrich and Romney—abandoned their prior positions and lined up against “Obamacare.” Amid the hyperventilating about “death panels,” as the party’s prospective standard-bearers fell into line, it became politically untenable for GOP legislators to negotiate even on a bill whose roots lay in conservative proposals. The Affordable Care Act ended up passing nonetheless—and Republicans in Congress had no influence over the law.
“There were leaders who knew better, who would have liked to deal. But they were trapped,” wrote former Bush speechwriter David Frum. “Conservative talkers on Fox and talk radio had whipped the Republican voting base into such a frenzy that deal-making was rendered impossible.” Speaking to ABC’s Nightline soon after, Frum summed up the new balance of power. “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us,” he said, “and now we are discovering we work for Fox.”
In some cases, literally. When Gingrich, a former supporter of action on climate change, came out against the cap and trade bill in 2009, he was a paid contributor to Fox News. As with Rick Santorum, a Fox sinecure gave him a way to stay in the public eye after leaving office with low approval ratings. And Herman Cain used his talk radio show to launch his fleeting political career, which was sustained by frequent appearances on Fox and conservative talk radio.
Some might say that Gingrich still works for Fox. For all his enthusiastic sparring with “media elites,” Gingrich has kowtowed to the conservative media as abjectly as anyone. On Meet the Press on May 15, Gingrich aptly characterized Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) plan to eliminate Medicare and replace it with vouchers for seniors to buy health insurance as “right-wing social engineering,” adding that it was “radical change” that is “too big a jump.”
The conservative media instantly vilified Gingrich as a traitor. “There is no explanation for it,” Limbaugh said. “It cuts Paul Ryan off at the knees.” Gingrich appeared on Sean Hannity’s radio show to do damage control but found himself on the defensive. Meanwhile, Ryan appeared on Laura Ingraham’s radio show to join in the Gingrich bashing. By May 17, Gingrich was groveling. “I made a mistake,” he said to Greta Van Susteren on Fox News. “And I called Paul Ryan today, who’s a very close personal friend and I said that. The fact is that I have supported what Ryan has tried to do on the budget.”
While there are undeniable heavyweights, like Limbaugh, in the conservative media machine, this swift discipline doesn’t happen as the result of a top-down directive. It is more accurate to think of the conservative media ecosystem as a giant circular feedback loop. Conservative talk radio’s rise in the late 1980s and early 1990s begat the creation of Fox News in 1996. Conservative blogs in turn arose in the last decade. Bloggers and their commenter communities listen to talk radio and watch Fox News, while Fox and radio hosts read conservative blogs, websites, and newspapers such as The Washington Times and New York Post. Thus conservatives in print, online, and on-air create and promote each other’s memes. The course of the right-wing obsession at a given moment, from the “Ground Zero Mosque” to Herman Cain, is often bottom-up as much as it is top-down.
The partial exception is conservatives in the elite print and online media: a few magazines such as National Review and The Weekly Standard, along with The Wall Street Journal editorial page and columnists in The Washington Post such as Charles Krauthammer. Although they appear on Fox and talk radio, members of this crew generally get their news from more mainstream sources, and from each other. Though their political agenda often aligns closely with their fellow travelers, having one foot in the wider world means they will occasionally admit a candidate has left the reality-based community.