Jim Geraghty argues that it wasn’t conservative ideals that took a beating in the election. It was the message of hostility, contempt and general weirdness of some of the center-right’s messengers that was the problem. Geraghty cites Romney’s 47% comment, Rush Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a slut, comparisons of same sex marriage to bestiality, and of course Todd Akin’s cracked opinions of rape and pregnancy. Geraghty sums up, “If you’re a wishy-washy, not-that-tuned-in, relatively apolitical voter, how do these controversies make you feel about Republicans?”
I think what Geraghty says it true as far as it goes (especially the part about Romney and the 47%), but I would like to put the focus elsewhere. Conservative spokesmen should be more careful about how they frame their arguments for the uncommitted. The Republicans should not nominate another presidential candidate who combines a lack of principles with contempt for those earning just under the national median. But cutting back on such talk will only get you so far because you can’t really stop it altogether. There will, for the foreseeable future, be financial incentives for some conservative media provocateur to say something nasty in order to get attention (or maybe just because they talk so much that something stupid falls out.) Both parties will inevitably nominate some stupid and/or mentally disturbed congressional candidates from time to time. There is a Democrat in the Senate who would not agree to the proposition that a newborn child was a human being with rights. There is a Democrat in the House of Representatives who was afraid that overpopulation would cause the island of Guam to tip over – and this guy is a major improvement over his immediate predecessor.
A big problem here is media consumption habits. A large fraction of the population hears from the center-right very rarely, and what they do hear is filtered through media that is either explicitly (MSNBC) or implicitly (the major networks, entertainment outlets) liberal. The problem isn’t just that Limbaugh said something obnoxious (though that is obviously bad.) For tens of millions of Americans, what they hear of the center-right is whatever is extracted, framed, and popularized by liberal-leaning media. Some conservatives say obnoxious things, but tens of millions of Americans hear conservatives only when conservatives say obnoxious things because that is what gets picked up.
This media reality obviously has multiple implications and I’ve only thought through a few of them. First, “distancing” from problematic statements or people is both necessary and insufficient. The Republicans (outside of Huckabee) could hardly have distanced themselves from Todd Akin more quickly and forcefully. Distancing was better than the alternatives but it wasn’t the end of the story because millions of Americans had no clear idea of what Republicans stood for and the media treatment of Akin was a convenient hook.
Second, Republican candidates are only rarely able to break through the media filter to speak to those Americans who aren’t already inclined to vote center-right, and this means that Republicans have to make the most of these few opportunities. Romney made good use of his first debate opportunity, but he wasted his speech at the Republican convention. But even if Republicans make the most of those moments when they are really heard by non-right-leaning-America, they can only do so much. A couple of speeches cannot undo the impact of dozens and dozens of hostile depictions of Republicans that are repeated year after year. Impressions can change, but they usually change slowly. The biggest challenge is putting people in a position where they are open to having their minds changed by the right candidate with the right message.
Third, the biggest challenge is getting thoughtful, temperate, and comprehensible conservative messages out to nonconservatives during nonelection years. That would do the most to dilute the impact of whatever nonsense is said by this or that character on the center-right. The liberal-leaning media could have obsessed all they wanted about Akin, but if most Americans knew about Obama’s abortion radicalism, the national conversation would have been different. What Rush Limbaugh (or any other talk show host) says on a given day would matter less if most nonconservatives know who Yuval Levin is.
We should expect better of conservative media and Republican candidates, but it is unrealistic to expect that every last organism on the center-right is going to behave. To live in fear of a firestorm the next time someone mouths off is to live in a hostage crisis where you already know the hostage is going to eventually get shot. The best way to reduce the impact of the right’s problem children is to get the best conservative thinking to people who have no contact with the right-leaning media. If they know about smart, decent, civil conservatives, the media firestorms won’t have the same impact.
It isn’t obvious how to get this done. My first suggestion is for conservative donors to change their funding priorities. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on vacuous thirty second election year ads that are designed to make microscopic gains among middle-class, middle-age, white women. Most of those dollars would be better spent on longer ads that have something real to say and that air between elections on media that is mostly watched by nonconservatives. The current shallow approach is costing more than money.
Update: I decided my orginal title for this post was indefensible, so I changed it.