In America almost everybody has a base, not only political parties. Businesses do, and public figures, and Web sites. We attempt to quantify to the nth degree everybody’s numbers, ratings, page views. These tell us how big a base is and, roughly, who is in it.
“The base” is a great if largely unspoken preoccupation in broad segments of our public life. In fact we have developed baseitis. Is this good?
What occasions the question is the USA Today story this week on a Gallup poll saying nearly half the country’s Republicans and Republican-leaners can’t come up with a name when asked who their party’s leader is. Of those who could think of a name, 10% said Rush Limbaugh, 10% Newt Gingrich, 9% Dick Cheney. Among Democrats, on the other hand, 83% could think of a leader of their party. Most of them said it was President Obama. This makes sense, yes?
The poll was a source of, or excuse for, interparty needling (the base likes that) and faux sympathy on cable news (their base likes that too.) What no one notes is the poll makes no sense, or rather makes so much sense that it’s not news.
The Democrats have a leader. He’s the president. When a party has a president, he’s the leader.
Parties out of power, almost by definition, are in search of one. When parties do not hold the White House and Congress they are, of necessity, retooling and reshaping themselves. Leaders of various party factions, being humans in politics and therefore bearing within themselves unsleeping little engines of ambition (that’s what Billy Herndon said lay inside his friend, unassuming prairie lawyer Abe Lincoln) will jostle each other for place.
The last time the Republican Party was in this position was 1977-78, after Watergate and the 1976 victory of Jimmy Carter. The Republicans then had no leader of the party, or rather there were a number of leaders: Rep. John Anderson was a leading moderate, Howard Baker was in the Senate, and Rep. Jack Kemp was a promising conservative. Out West, Ronald Reagan, nearing 70, was writing commentaries and contemplating a third presidential run.
No one knew what would happen, who would rise.
The last time Democrats were in this position was eight years ago, when they’d lost the presidency and Congress. Who exactly was the Democratic leader at that time? Teddy Kennedy had the liberals’ heart but he was going nowhere, Al Gore was in Europe growing a beard, Bill Clinton was out getting rich. Hillary Clinton was settling into New York. There was no leader. But there were people coming up in the states, including a state senator from Chicago named Barack Obama.
Everything changes, life is movement, leaders take time to emerge. Nationally our parties have produced both stasis and surprise.
What is different now, and it really is different, is that assisting and complicating the Republican process is something that didn’t exist in 1977 and was only a nascent force in 2000, and that is the conservative media infrastructure. The Republican Party has never re-formed itself while such a thing existed. The infrastructure changes things just by being.
For the Republicans it’s not all good news.
The good part is big: Absent a compelling leader with an actual vision of the future, conservative media (I speak here of the highly popular radio shows) lend a sense of dynamism to what used to be called Republican thought. Their hosts talk, explain, lead, providing information and arguments that in the past were unnoticed, unmentioned, uncovered. This has given an air of vitality, of presence, to Republican views.
But it constitutes a challenge to the party, too. Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele learned this three months ago, when he said Rush Limbaugh was angry. Mr. Steele felt forced to grovel in apology because Rush is more powerful than he is. When Michael Steele gets up in the morning, 20 million people don’t wait to hear his opinion. Rush made him look weak. That’s not an especially good look when you’re trying to rebuild a party.
Conservatives talking only to conservatives is like liberals talking only to liberals. A certain unreality can be enforced. It can encourage a false sense of momentum and dominance when you have an audience of millions saying, “You got that right, buddy.”
More voters have declared themselves independents since Mr. Obama came into the presidency. He is popular and admired, but America remains in play. The White House knows this; it’s why it is so keen and deadly in its political outreach and media operations. They’re never not on the case. They know they can’t afford to be.
And they’re always presenting themselves as smiling centrists.
The commitment and focus of the Obama political/media operation is connected to the Democrats’ knowledge that their position is strong but not fully secure. They aren’t just trying to win, they’re not only trying to hold on, they’re trying to create a new Democratic majority built more or less along the fundamental lines of FDR’s New Deal: a new, activist government; a fairer playing field; less inequity; the federal government as friend, goalie, coach and, in some cases, team owner. This isn’t quite centrism, and yet they portray it as such, while using the conservative media infrastructure as a foil. The Democratic message on the Republicans has gone from “the party of no” to “the party of angry white men.” If they get away with it, it will be in part because angry talkers in the conservative media infrastructure too often leave themselves open to the charge.
Both conservative media and liberal media are alike in that they have to keep the ratings up, or the numbers up, or the hits. If they lose audience, they can lose everything from clout to ad revenue. Because they have to keep the numbers up, they have to keep it hot, which actually has some effect on the national conversation. The mainstream media is only too happy to headline it when a radio talker says Sonia Sotomayor is a dope. The radio talker may be doing it to play to his base, but the mainstream media does it to show that Republicans are mean, thick and angry.
On left and right, on cable and radio, political hosts see gain in hyping the story, agitating and exciting their listeners. All of this creates a circular, self-enclosed world in which it gets hotter and hotter and tighter and tighter. (I remember when the liberals of the Democratic Party were like this, in the ‘80s. They talked only to themselves, and reinforced each other’s views. It took them years to recover.)
Must the Obama administration micromanage General Motors, institute a new health-care system, and institute a new energy regime? Must they mow down the opposition, shutting them out of the development of important bills? Well, the base likes this.
Can the radio host or the freelance policy maker calm down, become less polar and more thoughtful (yawn)? That would leave his base turning the dial and maybe going elsewhere. Can the big left-wing and right-wing Web sites commit apostasy, rethink issues? In general, bases don’t like that.
Everyone is looking to the base, the sliver, their piece of the pie, their slice of the demo. You wonder sometimes as you watch: Who’s looking out for the country?