As congressional Republicans decide who will be their next leaders it is worth thinking about what they did when they chose Denny Hastert as Speaker. They made a huge blunder, one that showed that they had failed to understand the nature of the political situation that they were in, and what they needed to do about it. And no, this was nothing to do with Foley or with any other scandals. But it had a great deal to do with the unprecedented hostility to George Bush and all things Republican in the nation’s major newspapers and TV networks.
The extremity and the uniformity of this hostility have become the most important fact of political life for Republicans. The long-standing tilt to the Left of the mainstream media has sharpened into a brazen partisanship in which Republican achievements are either barely mentioned or explained away and soon forgotten (excellent unemployment numbers, the two brilliant campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, successful elections in both places), while endlessly repetitive attacks on minor or even non-existent Republican problems (the Abu Ghraib night-staff’s sick jokes, invented lies about WMDs) manipulate public opinion to create a general impression of incompetence and wrongdoing.
This situation has created an unprecedented crisis in the relationship of a political party to its voting public. For some time now the most important thing that Republicans should have been thinking about is what to do about this takeover of the public’s traditional news sources by malicious Democratic partisanship and spin. Within this context it was sheer madness to elect Denny Hastert as Speaker of the House.
For the first thing that should have occurred to Republicans was that they could at least make maximum use of the ability of the party in power to reach the voting public through spokesmen who occupy high-profile governmental positions. The most important of these is the bully pulpit of the presidency. Members of the cabinet and chairs of Senate and House committees can also get direct access to the public to counter the effects of mainstream media partisanship. But the office that is second only to the President in this respect is that of the Speaker.
1994 was a good year for Republicans in no small part because they had in that role a man who was able to reach and persuade the public. Gingrich was both charismatic and eloquent, able to explain conservative ideas quickly and easily in crisp, forceful language. He was persuasive, and he was energetic. He seemed to be ever-present in the media, always impressive, confident and lucid.
But Hastert? He may have other good qualities, but it would be hard to imagine a man more lacking in those qualities that made Gingrich so successful in communicating with the American public. Lacking both natural eloquence and presence Hastert seemed an inarticulate man more at home in a smoke-filled back room than in public view. Gingrich impressed the public as a leader with a clear idea of where he was going and a desire to make that equally clear to the American people. By contrast, Hastert seemed like a machine pol fit only for unseen wheeling and dealing. Not surprisingly, from the public’s point of view he was almost invisible as Speaker. In electing Hastert as Speaker, Republicans gratuitously threw away their second most valuable asset for dealing with their foremost political problem. The Democrats who recognized the extraordinary value of Gingrich in this respect and consequently did all they could to destroy him must have been thrilled.
Why didn’t the White House try to change leadership earlier? Evidently because nobody there had grasped the point, either. The evidence for this is clear in the appointment of the rather wooden Scott McLelland as press secretary—a man almost as lacking in natural eloquence and presence as Hastert himself. Yet another key position wasted in what should have been a concerted effort to counter mainstream press partisanship. Where were those much vaunted political instincts of the White House’s resident political strategist when this happened?
When media bias reaches a certain level of extremity, it goes beyond slanted reporting of the news: the news events themselves change. Ted Kennedy can make a speech equating the night shift’s pranks at Abu Ghraib with Saddam Hussein’s brutal torture regime only because he knows that the next day the mainstream media will not be full of editorials that deplore his having made a fool of himself, as would once have been the case. Nancy Pelosi can call George Bush a liar about WMD only because she knows that there will be no outcry the next day in the mainstream media about the irresponsibility of so serious a charge based only on Bush’s having shared in the overwhelming consensus of the time.
Iraqi insurgents who know that the American media are eager to find and obsess on news of murder and mayhem will be equally eager to oblige them, and their will to continue a losing fight will be immensely strengthened by their sense of winning the battle in the American press. Who can say where we would be now in Iraq with a non-partisan press? Or how many lives that partisanship has cost?
The battle for public opinion is one that must now be taken very seriously. Republicans who elected Hastert went AWOL in that battle. Let us hope that this time when they elect their leaders in the House and Senate, congressional Republicans will understand that they are choosing key figures in this crucial battle, and elect people with the qualities needed for their roles.
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