Ted Cruz and Donald Trump: Signs of conservative media's grip on GOP

Story highlights

  • Rosenwald and Smerconish say GOP leaders have bowed down to the power of conservative media, including radio hosts like Limbaugh
  • Conservative media prospers when Democrats win; a Clinton victory would be good news for talk radio, they say

Brian Rosenwald, a fellow and instructor at the University of Pennsylvania, is writing a book on the development of talk radio, the subject of his doctoral dissertation. Michael A. Smerconish is host of "Smerconish," on CNN Saturdays at 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. ET and of "The Michael Smerconish Program" on SiriusXM Channel 124, Sunday columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer and author. His most recent book is a novel, "Talk," optioned by Warner Brothers for a possible TV show. The opinions expressed in this commentary are theirs.

(CNN)Now that the first presidential ballots of 2016 have finally been cast, many Americans are wondering how the Republican Party produced as frontrunners a scornful, extremely conservative senator, so unpopular among his colleagues that not a single one has endorsed his candidacy and a bombastic businessman who has never held elective office.

Brian Rosenwald
Yet the favored status of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump is actually unsurprising when viewed in the context of today's true Republican power brokers -- the people with microphones.
No doubt that's what CNN's Chris Cuomo was getting at when he asked talk radio host and Blaze founder Glenn Beck whether he and his colleagues were reaping what they sowed with their often fiery rhetoric in the rise of Trump, who many conservative commentators strenuously oppose.
Michael Smerconish
"That engendering an oppositional mode towards government and ratcheting up negativity as a mainline discourse, you wound up somewhat birthing Donald Trump?" queried Cuomo. Beck lamely asserted that: "I warned against this. You go back to my shows on Fox, and I warned the progressive movement, and that's what this is. Donald Trump is a progressive, make no mistake."
Beck sidestepped Cuomo's actual question because a serious, direct answer would have necessitated an admission that both Trump and Cruz are a manifestation of the climate created by Beck and his brethren.
Over the course of the last three decades, these media personalities have surpassed party officials and even elected representatives in their influence, ascending to exalted status atop Republican leadership. Yet, they prioritize goals seemingly at odds with good governance, and often, even the party's sole purpose for existence.

A GOP surrender

Talking heads wresting control of the GOP from the traditional party power brokers benefits neither the party, nor the nation. Political parties, after all, exist to win elections. By surrendering issue control to entertainers on the fringe of contemporary thought, however, the Republican Party has limited its ability to reach the 42% of Americans who according to Gallup, regard themselves as independents in a national, general election.
No wonder then that Democrats have won four of the last six presidential elections (and the popular vote in a 5th) by building and holding a Big Blue Wall of states that provides 89.6% of the electoral votes required to triumph. While the GOP has proven effective at controlling Congress and state capitols, the ever-increasing power of its media leadership has made control of the White House elusive. The GOP's struggles rob all Americans of the choice that comes from competitive presidential general elections.
Business motives drive the titans of talk. They aim to maximize revenue from advertising, which requires the attraction of computer clicks, ears, and eyeballs. That goal, in turn, necessitates producing an authentic, stimulating product. The more passion provoked by hosts, the better their shot of capturing and maintaining an audience.
That's the task that engages talkers each day -- they want to maximize their share of what, according to the media research firm BIA/Kelsey, was almost $200 million spent on talk radio advertising in 2014, most of which gets spent on predominately or entirely conservative stations (the number jumps substantially if one includes stations that only devote a portion of the day to talk programming).
Bold, assertive, controversial content achieves this goal far better than thorough, nuanced, paragraph-long explanations. This incentive explains why the content on talk radio and cable television news has long been a precursor to the provocative language of Trump and Cruz stump speeches.
Viewed against this backdrop, there's nothing shocking about Cruz having once said "I think President Obama is the most radical president this nation's ever seen" in light of Beck having previously gotten traction among his supporters by claiming that Obama is a "racist" with a "deep seated hatred of white people."
Similarly, Trump's exhortation that Megyn Kelly had "blood coming out of her wherever," is almost tame in comparison to Rush Limbaugh's characterization of Georgetown Law Center student Sandra Fluke as a "slut."

Elites pounded into submission

On the rare occasions when Republican elites have attempted to reassert control, they've been pounded into submission by the titans of talk and their allies in Congress. One example came last summer when House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) stripped Rep. Mark Meadows (R-North Carolina) of his subcommittee chairmanship as punishment for crossing the Republican leadership on a key procedural vote -- which violated a cardinal rule of party loyalty in the House.
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When choosing sides between the maintenance of party order and discipline or support for a charter member of the House Freedom Caucus who was among the leaders who forced a government shutdown in 2013, one talk icon didn't hesitate.
While chatting with a Meadows' sympathizer, Ohio GOP Rep. Jim Jordan, a disgusted Laura Ingraham slammed the leadership for its shabby treatment of leaders like Jordan and Meadows.
"This is what the mafia does," Ingraham said. "You know, I'm sorry, but this is a political mafia up on Capitol Hill. That's the way I see it. I don't see this as a Republican Party that represents people like me."
Later in the show, Ingraham hosted Meadows, who she praised: "Mark Meadows, Republican (of) North Carolina who stood up for common sense and pragmatism in trade and was punished for it."
She shamed Chaffetz, exclaiming "there's a point where you just have to say, you know I voted the right way in your mind on trade, sir, but I will not do this. I won't be party to what you're doing to these good men. That's what he should have said."
Less than a week later, Chaffetz reversed course and restored Meadows to his position, signifying the toothlessness of the elected Republican leadership.
To Ingraham and her cohorts, compromise constitutes treason -- no matter how unfavorable the political situation, or how dire the consequences of inaction. Most of talk's titans can freely slough off potentially catastrophic consequences because they dismiss the experts issuing warnings as suffering from hopeless liberal bias. Consequently, hosts discount their warnings as fear mongering designed to produce liberal outcomes.

'There is no compromise'

In December 2012 the nation confronted the "fiscal cliff," an ominous mix of deadlines that, if ignored, threatened significant economic damage and higher taxes for most Americans. The public had just re-elected President Obama by a comfortable margin, and Democrats had gained House and Senate seats. If ever there was a time when circumstances dictated that Republicans compromise, this was it.
Yet, talk radio's king, Rush Limbaugh, greeted a Republican leadership press conference by observing, "what we got today was a seminar on how to surrender. It was weak. The Republicans have conceded the language." The next day he mused: "There's no common ground here. There is no bipartisanship to be had. Isn't gonna happen. There is no compromise. None! There is only concession. That's all that can happen, and that's what will happen."
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When former House Speaker John Boehner unveiled a proposal to avoid falling into the abyss, Limbaugh dismissed it as essentially identical to a plan previously offered by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. His alternative? Republicans should "fall back on principle."
A year later, Boehner tackled another pressing problem, releasing a list of principles for satisfactory immigration reform. His standards, however, launched Limbaugh into a fury. He fulminated, "and that's what's so damn frustrating and inconceivable about the Republican Party wanting to open the country up to this kind of immigration. It just doesn't make any sense! It's the end of the Republican Party. It's the end of the country as we know it. It doesn't make any sense, in the traditional way of judging this."
He instructed that "we ought not be granting citizenship to people that don't love the country... We shouldn't be granting citizenship to people who come here and want to undermine it."
For Boehner, governance dictated attempting to address the problem of millions of undocumented immigrations in the country. Deportation was unrealistic. Politically, without addressing the broken immigration system, Boehner presumably realized that Republicans faced serious demographic problems going forward. By contrast, Limbaugh, seeking to influence the views of his listeners, demonized Boehner's position as tantamount to destruction of America.

The dangers for elected Republicans

Ingraham's verbal spanking of the Republican leadership and Limbaugh's condemnation of Boehner's openness on immigration reform epitomize a common theme in conservative media. Over the last three decades, hosts frequently lashed elected Republican power brokers for straying from what they regarded as core principles, shattering promises or betraying the voters who invested in their candidacies.
Elected Republicans can't ignore these polemics without courting potential electoral disaster during primary season. Media personalities can use their platforms to help candidates offset several major advantages held by incumbents or establishment favorites in primary elections, including significantly greater fundraising and name recognition. But such support comes with a price, as hosts demand purity from elected officials and glorify rhetorical bomb throwers, such as Cruz and Trump.
This political landscape represents a dramatic departure from even the recent past. As late as the Reagan era the media did not foster an ideological divide and neither did Washington, a matter of no coincidence.
Consider that every year since 1982, the National Journal has been tracking the ideological leanings of Congress. That analysis suggests we are at an all-time high for polarization. In 2014, and for the fourth straight year, every Senate Republican was more conservative than every Senate Democrat, and every Senate Democrat was more liberal than every Senate Republican. (The House is similarly divided.)
By contrast, according to the Journal, on Ronald Reagan's watch in 1982, "58 senators and 344 House members had voting records that put them between the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat."
Controlling the White House, the House of Representatives or the Senate, forces elected Republicans to confront the task of governing. For better or worse, especially in times of divided government, governing demands compromise, nuance, and, often, jettisoning campaign promises or ideologically pure positions.
No wonder then that 92-year-old Bob Dole -- the former Senate Majority leader, Republican National Committee chairman, 1996 GOP standard-bearer and two-time Iowa caucus victor -- felt compelled to emerge recently in opposition to Cruz.
"I don't think Ted is a Republican," he told CNN. "He's a conservative extremist, and I think he uses the title Republican because there's no conservative extremist ballot. You know, he doesn't get along with anybody in the Senate. There are 54 Republicans and none are supporting him."
Perhaps Dole was motivated to speak up after reflecting on the change in the Senate during the three decades since he was elected majority leader. On his watch, moderates abounded on the Republican side of the aisle to such a degree that they gathered weekly for the Wednesday Lunch Club.
Dole was a member. So too were Arlen Specter, John Heinz, Bob Packwood, Mark Hatfield, Nancy Kassebaum, John Danforth, Charles Percy, Lowell Weicker, John Chafee, Bob Stafford, Alan Simpson, Slade Gordon, Ted Stevens and John Warner. None remain in the Senate and nor have their shoes been filled. The same time period which saw explosive growth of polarization in Washington witnessed the rise of the polarized media. Neither happened in a vacuum.

Limbaugh transforms talk radio

The harbinger of change came in 1988 when Rush Limbaugh entered national syndication, en route to transforming talk radio. This was pre-Internet, before Fox News, and long before satellite radio.
At a time when a liberal worldview shaped most media content, conservatives seized the opportunity to establish their own clubhouse on AM radio. Soon every major market would have Limbaugh and a stable of his imitators. Thirty years later, Limbaugh and his progeny maintain control over conservative outlets that now serve as the oracles for Republicans nationwide.
As Cruz himself noted recently to Fox News' Howard Kurtz, "... the great news is, we don't live anymore in a world of three networks that have a stranglehold on information. We've got the Internet, we've got the Drudge Report, we've got talk radio, we've got social media. We've got the ability to go directly around and directly to the people."
Conservative outlets have proliferated to such a degree that some hosts, such as Iowa's Steve Deace (who campaigned with Ted Cruz on the eve of the Iowa caucuses), and their listeners now question the conservatism of former gold standards like Fox News. These channels and hosts arouse suspicion by failing to sufficiently flay establishment conservatives or mistreating favorite firebrands.

A route to reach the base

Currying favor with conservative outlets, particularly talk radio hosts, is thought to be essential to reach the GOP base. This explains why in the last debate before the Iowa caucus, Cruz responded to a question about immigration reform by granting two nationally syndicated radio hosts equal status to a member of the House and Senate:
"I stood alongside Jeff Sessions and Steve King, and we led the fight against amnesty. And if you want to know who's telling the truth, you should look and ask people like Jeff Sessions and Steve King and Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin, all of whom say, as Jeff Sessions said ... 'if it wasn't for Ted Cruz, the Gang of Eight Rubio/Schumer bill would have passed. But because Ted stood up and helped lead the effort, millions rose up to kill it.'"
The fans of conservative media place a deep trust in their favorite hosts. These talkers are friends who glorify fans' values. They market themselves as bravely championing views that listeners hold, but can't express for fear of being branded cruel, bigoted or worse. By challenging liberal "bullies," they earn the respect of listeners or viewers, who spend hours each week with them.
Hosts apply the conservative world view that they share with their fans to issues, candidates, specific policy proposals and newsworthy events. Contrary to scornful liberal characterizations, conservative media consumers are not mindless robots manipulated by hosts. Their conservative core convictions existed regardless of any influence from the media, but talkers spotlight to candidates, events, ideas and policy proposals that they might otherwise miss in the bustle of life.
Thus it ought not to surprise pundits to see these voters gravitate towards candidates like Trump and Cruz who preach from the same prayer book as their favorite hosts -- regardless of dire warnings from the establishment about potential electoral catastrophe. While Trump deviates from conservative orthodoxy on some issues, he ripped his stance on immigration and his "Make America Great Again" slogan straight from the conservative media playbook.

Establishment's fear

Establishment Republicans fear that a Cruz triumph would doom their Senate majority. Cruz has also so alienated his Republican colleagues that conservative North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr reportedly confided to attendees at a fundraiser that he would vote for self-proclaimed socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is currently running for the Democratic presidential nomination, over Cruz.
Most of the establishment prefers that their party nominates one of four candidates: Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich or former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. No doubt they grasp that governing will require someone in the White House who understands the limitations they will confront, even under the best case scenario -- a unified Republican government.
Congressional leaders seek a team player willing to compromise as they keep their eye on protecting their majorities and enacting the most conservative policy realistically possible in a deeply divided country.
The titans of talk, by contrast, can freely support Cruz because they win regardless of the election's outcome. If the senator stuns the Washington establishment and triumphs in November, they will finally have a champion in the White House who shares their values and will heed their call for uncompromising, unabashed conservatism.

Winning while losing

If Cruz loses, however, they also win because four more years with a Democrat in the White House will be a boon to the bottom line. After all, the election of President Clinton in 1993 catapulted Limbaugh's already burgeoning stardom to stratospheric levels.
As Limbaugh acknowledged to Playboy Magazine in 1993, "there is no question that it's much easier (doing his show) with a clearly established opponent in a position of power, as opposed to someone who is not an opponent." He emphasized that he had hoped for a Clinton loss because he felt Clinton's policies would hurt the country. Yet, Limbaugh did admit, "I can sit back in reflection and say that (Clinton's presidency was) probably a better programming opportunity for me."
Shortly after the election, he boasted to his television viewers, "We are now the sole voice of sanity, the sole voice of reason. We are the sole voice of opposition on all television. This is the only place you can tune to to get the truth of the opposition of the one-party dictatorial government that now will soon run America."
In fact, Clinton's presidency played a crucial role in constructing today's monolithic world of conservative talk. For the people with microphones, conflict produces great radio or television.
A president doing controversial things translates into vexed listeners or viewers who want to vent and seek solace in their favorite virtual community of the like-minded. For hosts, a president from the opposition party offers a target about whom to bellow and kvetch. And for this reason, the only thing better for their business than Bill Clinton ... would be Hillary!