“This is an important dichotomy, between activist conservative pundits and journalists who have a conservative viewpoint,” says Matt Lewis, an independent-minded blogger for The Daily Caller, Tucker Carlson’s conservative website. “One side says you should tell the truth and report things and the other says, ‘Not if it hurts our side.’”
Nonetheless, the power of partisan message enforcement only works in one direction—rightward. Consider Rick Perry’s assertion that it would be “almost treasonous” for Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, originally an appointee of George W. Bush, to attempt monetary stimulus a mere 16 months before an election, coupled with a vague threat of mob violence should Bernanke visit Texas. Most conservative pundits gave Perry a pass. Karl Rove, who has a longstanding personal grudge with Perry, took issue with the comments on Fox News. But the rest of the conservative choir stayed mostly silent; Perry was not forced to backtrack to appease outraged talk radio hosts. He never apologized.
Or consider Herman Cain’s shocking promise to deter illegal immigrants by building a deadly electrified fence topped with barbed wire on the U.S. border with Mexico. In one instance Cain added that he would consider using military troops “with real guns and real bullets” on the border. The next morning on Meet the Press Cain claimed it was a joke, though the context of his speech and the crowd’s reaction at the time had suggested nothing of the sort.
But that was good enough for conservative outlets, which credulously reported Cain’s spin, if they covered his remarks at all. The Weekly Standard managed to do an entire item on Cain’s Meet the Press appearance without mentioning the issue. Meanwhile, Eric Erickson of the blog Red State wrote posts lambasting “uptight people” for not getting the joke. “Herman Cain has done something we all owe him a debt of gratitude for doing,” wrote Erickson. “He has singlehandedly revived a stereotype many people thought had been forgotten—the humorless liberal.”
Leftward deviations from the party line, on the other hand, are swiftly punished. The issue of immigration provides a perfect case study in the contrast. Just two weeks before the Cain episode, when Perry said that those who disagree with his decision to let illegal immigrants brought to America as children attend Texas public universities at in-state rates “don’t have a heart,” the condemnation in the conservative media was swift and furious. “This isn’t even an immigration issue any more,” wrote Mark Krikorian in a typical blog post for National Review. “This is the same ‘kinder, gentler,’ ‘compassionate conservatism’ contempt for the grassroots that animates much of the Republican party establishment. Perry can shoot coyotes from now till doomsday and he’s never going to live this down.” When Perry inevitably retreated, telling the conservative website Newsmax.com that he had been “over-passionate” in his word choice, blogger Michelle Malkin complained that Perry did not actually use the word “sorry.”
Meanwhile, the speed with which conservative pundits can force a candidate to reverse himself on a relatively moderate view continues to accelerate. On the morning of October 25, while campaigning in Ohio, Romney was asked whether he supported Gov. John Kasich’s anti-union referendum. Not wanting to alienate any voters in a general election swing state, Romney punted. “I am not speaking about the particular ballot issues,” Romney said. “Those are up to the people of Ohio.”
By early afternoon the conservative press was apoplectic. “If Romney can’t endorse this common sense reform at the state level, why should conservatives believe he will fight against government unions at the federal level,” wrote Conn Carroll of The Washington Examiner. “This is a huge freaking deal,” wrote Erickson, adding a warning to Romney: “Typically, when a politician stands for nothing except his own election, he winds up not getting elected.” For the rest of the day Romney’s campaign tried to stay away from the issue. “Gov. Romney believes that the citizens of states should be able to make decisions about important matters of policy that affect their states on their own,” his campaign spokesman told National Review.