The Fox Tail is Wagging the GOP Dog

| Tue Jun. 4, 2013 12:28 PM EDT

What's the Republican Party to do? A recent report, commissioned by the College National Republican Committee, tells us what we already knew, namely that the GOP is widely reviled by young voters:

In the focus group research conducted in January 2013, the young “winnable” Obama voters were asked to say what words came to mind when they heard “Republican Party.” The responses were brutal: closed-minded, racist, rigid, old-fashioned....[The same] respondents in the Columbus group of young men who voted for Obama were asked to name who they viewed as leaders of the Democratic Party. They named prominent former or currently elected officials: Pelosi, the Clintons, Obama, Kennedy, Gore. When those same respondents were asked to name Republican leaders, they focused heavily on media personalities and commentators: Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck.

So what's the answer? It's obvious to us liberals: ease up on the gay bashing, ease up on the gender wars, ease up on the dog-whistle racial appeals, and ease up on the NRA über alles approach to gun regulation.

The problem is that while this may seem obvious to us, moving further and further to the right hasn't been the disaster for Republicans that we often make it out to be. Sure, they've lost two presidential elections in a row, but parties lose two presidential elections in a row all the time. On the brighter side, they won a landslide victory in 2010 and took control of the House. They control enough statehouses to gerrymander their way to continued control for a good long time. And for a party supposedly on the ropes, they sure seem to have Democrats scared that they might win back control of the Senate in 2014.

So why change? Especially since easing up on culture war issues, while it might appeal to younger voters, would almost certainly lose them votes among their older, more tea partyish base. It's genuinely hard to see how this turns into a net win for Republicans in the short term, and it's hard to see why they'd be motivated to risk it given the fact that they probably don't feel like they're actually in any existential danger right now.

Still, in the long term this is surely a serious problem. So how to solve it? By chance, a friend just wrote me an email that provides the answer. Here it is:

I'm a little confused. The Garance Franke-Ruta story on the "157 visits!" seems to have been completely missed by the Fox News world. I expected they'd breeze by it and not admit they got it wrong (O'Reilly's segment looks comical in retrospect, even going so far as to tell Douglas Shulman to shove the Easter eggs from the Easter Egg Roll up his ass) but they went right back to it last night. And Bob Woodward even joined in. They have to account for those 157 visits immediately!

What the ...?

Bob Somerby was watching Fox last night and reports the same thing. And there you have it. It's conservative media that controls the GOP's fate. The Republican Party could almost certainly solve its problem if Fox News and the rest of the gang were on board. They could lighten up on the culture war stuff, thus increasing their appeal among young voters, while keeping the oldsters on board too. Right now, though, they can't do it because the Rush/Drudge/Fox axis will go ballistic, turning the tea partiers into frothing maniacs over every perceived deviation from traditional morality. If they agreed among themselves to stop doing this, the frothing would subside and the party would have a whole lot more short-term maneuvering room to address their long-term problem.

But my friend's email explains why that won't happen. Fox and the others aren't really in business to help Republicans. They're in business to keep the tea party crowd whipped up and ready to invest in the gold coins offered by their advertisers. Outrage is how they do this, and neither facts nor the long-term health of the GOP are allowed to get in the way. Pounding away mendaciously on Shulman's 157 visits might be the kind of overreach that hurts Republicans in the long run, but who cares? The rubes don't read the Washington Post and don't know that the story is bogus, so Fox will keep at it because it's good for business. The tail is now wagging the dog, and the Republican Party is being held hostage to the bottom line of the conservative media.

This is the Republican Party's core problem. Sure, it's always hard for a party to change directions, even moderately, but it's almost impossible when you have organs like Fox News generating froth-at-the-mouth outrage over every deviation from orthodoxy. It makes the short-term risk of change too great to bear. Until the GOP fixes that, they're going to have a hard time fixing anything else.

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