Perhaps we still do not understand the current Obama backlash.
David Brooks caused a small stir on Friday by arguing that conservative radio hosts are, paradoxically, a lot like well-behaved children. They are seen - splashed across magazine covers and endlessly profiled - but not heard, politically, since they do not swing elections.
"The talk jocks can't even deliver the conservative voters who show up at Republican primaries," Brooks observed, reminiscing about how McCain's media detractors could not stop him in South Carolina last year.
After the summer of townhalls and what's shaping up as the autumn of Glenn Beck, however, it is hard to see things through Brooks' bifocals. Besides, as the top conservative at the Times and an alumnus of Rupert Murdoch's Weekly Standard, Brooks is peering out from within the conservative media ecosystem. He is, unavoidably, in direct competition for opinion leadership with the "talk jocks" he knocks. Which makes it especially odd for him to apply an electioneering metric to opinion media.
Even the proudest pundits would shrink from the notion that they swing elections. (Rush Limbaugh is probably the only exception.) Most members of the activist conservative media machine do not define their success by electoral results. And that is one reason they look so successful right now.
It is no accident that the two biggest forces countering the new President do not practice electoral politics. The opposition party may whither, but there is still the movement and the man. Both have the Obama administration's attention.
"We have something new in our political life," Michael Tomasky recounts in an excellent essay in the latest New York Review of Books, a "right-wing street-protest movement." The people who commandeered those August town halls and, feeling the thrill of direct action, gathered to create their own Washington rally in September - they are against something. Obama. Taxes. Government. Socialism. Treason. Nazism. Scan those signs they carried around the National Mall, and you see a bizzaro album of the people they detest and the threats, both real and imagined, that they fear.
There were few signs for alternative policies, let alone the alternative political party. The same is true, naturally, for their leader.
Glenn Beck has a long list of concerns about the country's direction. Yet since Obama's election, his most successful efforts have focused on attacking members of the administration and (putative) allies. He is trying to stop Obama, not jump-start the mid-terms.
Congressional Republicans have not exactly distinguished themselves for an enlightened posture towards the new President, but to be fair, even they do not share all of Beck's obsessions.
By his own count, Beck began assailing Van Jones on July 23 and continued for weeks, up
until the September 6 resignation. Fox aired hundreds of segments on Jones. Congressional Republicans, however, were less interested. In the past 9 months, Jones' name has only surfaced on the floor of Congress in eight instances (according to the Congressional Record). Brooks argues, however, that "Republican politicians" follow Beck at every turn:
Everyone is again convinced that Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity and the rest possess real power. And the saddest thing is that even Republican politicians come to believe it... They pay more attention to Rush's imaginary millions than to the real voters down the street. The Republican Party is unpopular because it's more interested in pleasing Rush's ghosts than actual people. The party is leaderless right now because nobody has the guts to step outside the rigid parameters enforced by the radio jocks and create a new party identity. The party is losing because it has adopted a radio entertainer's niche-building strategy, while abandoning the politician's coalition-building strategy.
It's true, there is definitely a cost to governing like an entertainer, as I argued when Republicans took heat for media attacks on Sotomayor:
The incentives for niche political programming... run counter to the needs of a political party trying to crawl from 40 Senate seats to a winning national coalition.
At bottom, however, Brooks misses what's really happening beyond the cost to the GOP. The Obama backlash is about now, not future elections. It is about attacking, distracting and delegitimizing the President to thwart his agenda. It is about ratcheting up the national "discourse," such as it is, and turning the banal to controversial. It is about framing and distorting the debate -- all to impact how both parties govern in real time. Shaping public policy when you're out of power is really quite an achievement. Sometimes, just being seen is enough.