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January 22, 2008

Did Talk Radio Lose In South Carolina?

Michael Medved has a provocative column from this weekend arguing that the biggest loser in South Carolina wasn't Fred Thompson or Mike Huckabee. Medved, a Salem Radio talk-show host, says that the conservative endorsement of John McCain repudiated talk-show offensives against his campaign and exposed talk radio as a dying influence on the Right:

The big loser in South Carolina was, in fact, talk radio: a medium that has unmistakably collapsed in terms of impact, influence and credibility because of its hysterical and one-dimensional involvement in the GOP nomination fight.

For more than a month, the leading conservative talkers in the country have broadcast identical messages in an effort to demonize Mike Huckabee and John McCain. If you’ve tuned in at all to Rush, Sean, Savage, Glenn Beck, Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin, Hugh Hewitt, Dennis Prager, and two dozen others you’ve heard a consistent drum beat of hostility toward Mac and Huck. As always, led by Rush Limbaugh (who because of talent and seniority continues to dominate the medium) the talk radio herd has ridden in precisely the same direction, insisting that McCain and Huckabee deserve no support because they’re not “real conservatives.” A month ago, the angry right launched the slogan that Mike Huckabee is a “pro-life liberal.” More recently, after McCain’s energizing victory in New Hampshire, they trotted out the mantra that the Arizona Senator (with a life-time rating for his Congressional voting record of 83% from the American Conservative Union) is a “pro-war liberal.”

Well, the two alleged “liberals,” McCain and Huckabee just swept a total of 63% of the Republican vote in deeply conservative South Carolina. Meanwhile, the two darlings of talk radio -- Mitt Romney and, to a lesser extent, Fred Thompson—combined for an anemic 31% of the vote.

Medved makes a good point here, but I'd hesitate to call talk radio "damaged". As Medved's own support for McCain makes clear, the market has shown some diversity in opinion on this topic -- and it reflects the same debate Republicans and conservatives have had for the entire debate. Fred Thompson's departure will make it even more intriguing, and necessary.

Can one call McCain conservative? I think so, but that doesn't make Hugh Hewitt and Rush Limbaugh somehow wrong to disagree, and to disagree strongly. It's literally what they get paid to do. I'd also object to the notion that Rush leads a herd in this case, especially since McCain, for all his virtues (and they are many), has often alienated these conservative activists on both policy and tone.

However, in a larger sense and without the somewhat hyperbolic notion of "damage" to talk radio, Michael hits the nail on the head. In my opinion, the tone of this primary has strayed unnecessarily into negative attacks on valuable members of our own team. Instead of focusing on positive aspects of a favored candidate, too often our advocates have opted to seize on any criticism of others and make that their main message. That's not just true in talk radio, but also in the blogosphere.

It has led to what I call Ultimatum Politics -- where people start to demand that either their specific candidate gets nominated or they refuse to participate in the general election. That results from overcranked partisanship clouding mature judgment. In a general election, voters have to make a choice, and as Ronald Reagan warned, it's better to support a candidate with whom one agrees on 70% of the issues rather than allow a 30% candidate to prevail instead. Demonizing all of the other options (which Alan Keyes literally did at the CLC in October) paralyzes a political party.

We need to rationally discuss the benefits and risks of each candidate without looking to "gotcha" people we may need to support later. I don't think talk radio gets damaged by creating controversy, but we as a party can damage ourselves by allowing the rhetoric to get in the way of rational analysis.


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