These past few weeks it’s finally seemed to dawn on a few conservatives other than David Frum that maybe they ought to start standing up to the large-mouthed extremists on their own side before their party is irrevocably wrecked. Frum and a few of his fellow sensible right-wingers, mostly bloggers and other under-the-radar types, have been fighting back against talk radio demagogues like Mark Levin, Sean Hannity, and the new King of Crazyland, Glenn Beck, for months. But now, finally, they have some more high-profile help.
Sunday morning on Meet the Press, David Brooks, a conservative columnist for the New York Times, and Mike Murphy, a veteran Republican operative who worked on John McCain’s 2000 primary campaign, joined the panel to talk Afghanistan, Chicago’s failed Olympics bid, and other happy horseshit. Along the way they also made a point of speaking out against the angry fringe of their party. Brooks called the hysterical fear-mongering that has been whipped up against recent healthcare reform proposals “a media circus” and “not where the country is.” But that wasn’t all:
Even on the Republican side we’ve got, you know, frankly, people I consider loons and harmful for America: Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, all these guys. They don’t control the Republican Party. They were all against John McCain in South Carolina in the last primary season. They — and John McCain won the South Carolina primary. These talk radio guys couldn’t control Republican voters in, in primaries in South Carolina. They have actually no power over real Americans.
Brooks also devoted his Friday column to taking a long-overdue piss on Limbaugh, Hannity, Levin and Beck. There (writing specifically about Rush) he sums up their actual political influence like this: When the titans of right-wing radio order the troops forward, “Hundreds of calls come in. The receptionists are miserable. But the numbers back home do not move. There is no effect on the favorability rating or the re-election prospects. In the media world, he is a giant. In the real world, he’s not.”
Sitting across the table from Brooks on Meet the Press, Mike Murphy — who sometimes guest-hosts on the radio for Dennis Miller and, like most of Miller’s guest hosts, does the job a lot better than Miller does (Andrew Breitbart being an emphatic exception) — agreed with him, especially when talk turned to former vice presidential nominee and soon-to-be-best-selling-author Sarah Palin:
She’ll never be the nominee, I totally agree with David. I agree with Steve Schmidt, it would be actually a disaster if she was the nominee. I do wish my friend Steve felt that a year ago when a lot of people were asking John McCain to put her on the ticket. But the truth is — and I’m going to agree with David here, too — the noisiest parts of kind of the conservative media machine have far less influence than the mainstream media machine that covers the Republican world thinks they do. These radio guys can’t deliver a pizza, let alone a nomination.
Murphy also got out the line of the week, this terrific dig on Palin’s forthcoming memoir: “I’m going to buy it. I’m going to wait for it to get spell-checked, but then I’m going to buy it.”
The evidence that Brooks and Murphy are correct about the power of Beck, Hannity, Levin, et al being largely imaginary is easy to find. Look no further than the Republican primary election results in 2008, cited by Brooks, when John McCain — a legitimate war hero and loyal party man who is inexplicably despised by much of right-wing radio — decisively won the nomination over the likes of Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson. Another obvious example is last month’s anemic 9/12 rally in Washington, D.C. Despite being pushed by Glenn Beck for six months, actual turnout for the protest was well under 100,000. Not that drawing a crowd of 100,000 people is anything to be ashamed of, but Beck and other conservative talkers briefly insisted that the turnout had been as much as 2,000,000, which anyone with a lick of common sense (the title of a great book by Thomas Paine, if I recall correctly) could immediately see wasn’t remotely true.
You might think Beck, Hannity and the rest would feel a bit stung by sharp criticism from folks in their own party, but you’d be wrong, baby, wrong. Rather than reacting thoughtfully and soberly (‘cause fuck, why start now?) to the remarks of Brooks, Murphy, Frum, etc., those idols of millions (in total, depending how you count) simply declared that their Republican critics were not true conservatives. Yesterday on his radio show, Hannity bitched that he was sick and tired of “liberals” in the Republican party (meaning radical left tree-huggers like David Brooks and David Frum) attacking him. Mark Levin devoted a large portion of his nightly three-hour tirade to Mark McKinnon, a former advisor to both George W. Bush and John McCain who took after Levin for openly rooting against the President of the United States representing Chicago last week in its failed bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Levin wasn’t the only one. Glenn Beck was positively giddy at the news that Chicago had been eliminated by the International Olympic Committee. Rush Limbaugh announced on his radio show that he was “gleeful” and “happy” over the failed American Olympic bid. Sean Hannity used his Monday Morning Minute segment to gloat over Obama’s failed Olympic pitch, blaming the president’s imaginary international America-bashing for Chicago’s rejection by the IOC.
It’s that sort of rhetoric that turns off respectable conservatives like Frum, Brooks, Murphy, and McKinnon. If you drain away the vitriol and look at their naked political beliefs, they aren’t that far from Hannity and Levin and Limbaugh (Beck is another story). As conservative Republicans they favor low taxes, small government, and unfettered free-market capitalism. David Frum is all for that shit, just like Mark Levin is. What makes Frum a reasonable, respectable voice (or, as Levin calls him, a “squish”) is that he doesn’t argue that those who disagree with his political philosophy (including majorities of both houses of Congress, the current President of the United States, and tens of millions of his fellow Americans) are willfully trying to destroy the economy, the culture, and the nation in general.
Sean Hannity doesn’t just argue against Barack Obama’s policies. He labels him a “radical” with values contrary to the all-important (and largely made-up) principles of the Founding Fathers. Mark Levin does not merely take issue with the president’s political viewpoint. He regularly accuses Obama of being a “Stalinist” and an enemy of liberty. Their political opponents are not fellow Americans with whom they disagree in good faith, but enemies, identified by epithets like “lib” and “RINO,” not to be engaged but attacked and defeated. Hannity, Levin, Limbaugh, and especially Beck aren’t shy about twisting the facts to demonize their perceived adversaries. When twisting won’t do, there’s always outright invention, as has been the case lately with the assault on Obama appointee Kevin Jennings. And they dive straight into outright hypocrisy without so much as a flinch on a daily basis. Hannity still won’t shut-up about Barack Obama’s crazy former pastor, or the fundraiser he held at Bill Ayers’s house at the beginning of his political career. But how odd it was that neither Hannity nor anyone else in the right-wing media took such evident pleasure in pointing out the questionable associations in the past of Sarah Palin.
People like me, folks of a more liberal mindset, have been calling bullshit on these guys for years. But that’s easy, that’s what you’d expect. What is urgently needed is more conservatives like David Frum, Mike Murphy, David Brooks, and Mark McKinnon to stand up and take back the conversation. Because if the nutjobs and bullies on the fringe are allowed to dominate the discourse for too long, they really will take control of the party from the civil ones they find so contemptible. The ensuing electoral bloodbath might be fun to watch from this side, but ultimately it could be bad news for everybody. As shitty as the two-party system is, I’m not yet ready to trade it in on a one-party model.