BOB GARFIELD: And, I'm Bob Garfield. Conservatives met at their conference to chart a course out of the political wilderness and complained it’s like herding cats.
MAN: A lot of us end up selling out to the other side for a guest spot on Meet the Press or Larry King Live because they know that a conservative saying something bad enough about another conservative is automatically going to be newsworthy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The fictional con man is an American icon. We hate Madoff, but we love Cagney.
[CLIP FROM BLONDE CRAZY]:
JAMES CAGNEY AS BERT: Honey, I'm Santa Claus, Robin Hood and the goose that laid the golden egg, all in one.
BOB GARFIELD: It’s all coming up. Stay with us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR’s On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. The big political story all this week was that the fractured, fragmented, frustrated conservative movement had more or less found its leader. And who was this Moses to lead the party back to the promised land?
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Here’s Rush Limbaugh, the leader of the Republican Party. I want you to watch something. This is -
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: - who is who. Remarkably, the central discussion in Republican politics right now is Rush Limbaugh’s -
MALE CORRESPONDENT: - Republican leaders. Nobody’s really listening to the conservative leaders we used to know. That leaves Rush Limbaugh and that’s why we're in the situation we're in.
BOB GARFIELD: The liberal-hating, race-baiting, character-assassinating syndicated talk show host. Dressed like a tango finalist, he strode to the lectern at last weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C. to a rapturous reception.
[CHEERS AND APPLAUSE]
RUSH LIMBAUGH: Thank you all. I can't tell you how, how wonderful that makes me feel. It happens everywhere I go, but it’s still special -
BOB GARFIELD: Then, without benefit of a script, Limbaugh spent 85 minutes, being Limbaugh.
RUSH LIMBAUGH: I have learned how to tweak liberals everywhere. I can do it instinctively now.
[LAUGHTER] Tweak them in the media, tweak ‘em in the – There’s no reason to be afraid of these people. But why in the world would you be afraid of the deranged?
BOB GARFIELD: Later that day, the newly elected Republican Party chairman, Michael Steele, tried to distance himself from the, quote, “ugly and incendiary nature” of Limbaugh’s shtick. This elicited such outrage within his own party that Steele felt compelled to apologize, a groveling exercise interpreted by many pundits as acknowledgement of Limbaugh’s supremacy. Here’s FOX News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly.
BILL O’REILLY: But the perception it gives people who don't follow politics closely and really don't know what’s going on is that Michael Steele obviously is apologizing to Rush Limbaugh, that Rush Limbaugh is more powerful than Steele. And Limbaugh may well be.
BOB GARFIELD: With no Bush and Cheney to kick around anymore, Democrats gleefully promoted the idea that a rich, intolerant loudmouth indeed represents the values of the modern GOP. The White House made Limbaugh a talking point, and this week, the liberal group Americans United for Change created this Web ad.
MALE ANOUNCER: Who was the leader Republicans hailed as a hero last weekend? Was it Sarah Palin?
WOMAN: Nope, nope, nope.
MALE ANNNOUNCER: Bobby Jindal?
MAN: No, no, no.
MALE ANNOUNCER: Michael Steele?
MAN: No, no, no.
MALE ANNOUNCER: Then who? Not Rush Limbaugh.
MAN: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, not for long, long, long. Rushomania aside, a conservative conference in 2009 hasn't much to do with a presidential campaign in 2012. As much as Limbaugh and the Democrats reveled in the week’s burlesque, let's just assume that eventually someone, familiar or yet unknown, will emerge to fill the leadership vacuum, which is why I went to CPAC myself to join 1800 committed conservatives in the big tent and to imagine ways in which disparate factions of the political right might coalesce around a unified political message. Yeah, I entered the sprawling Omni Shoreham Hotel in search of common ground. And what did I find? A shooting gallery. No, really, a shooting gallery.
[SOUNDS OF SHOTS] Varmint Town, a marksmanship booth set up by the National Rifle Association. This was but a stone’s throw from the P-FOX booth -
MAN: It’s called Parents and Friends, Ex-Gays and Gays. P-FOX.
BOB GARFIELD: - which was cattycorner from Concerned Women for America. Sheri Rendall articulated her organization’s six core issues.
SHERI RENDALL: We are concerned about the sanctity of life, the sanctity of the family, as marriage is between one man and one woman. We're concerned about education. Education belongs with our parents and not with our federal government. Religious liberty. We are concerned with the coarsening of our culture. Pornography and obscenity really have no place in our public forum. And then our national sovereignty, that the U.N. does not impose international law on our citizens.
BOB GARFIELD: That’s a platform, all right. But a stroll around CPAC helped explain the party’s leadership dilemma. Rendall’s core issues aren't every Republican’s core issue. Here an income tax abolitionist, there an evangelical, there a militant libertarian who entirely excludes no option in prying government off our backs.
MAN: Personally I don't think working through the political process is the best way to go. I think for me it’s education, it’s persuasion. It’s trying to get these ideas out there to the most people as possible.
BOB GARFIELD: But not insurrection.
MAN: Hopefully not. I mean, for me, it’s just - it’s about peace. It’s about peaceful means of bringing about a freer world.
BOB GARFIELD: The big tent at various moments was more like a three-ring circus. At one point, blogger Glenn Reynolds, aka, Instapundit, was actually advising the party to ditch the fight against gay marriage.
GLENN REYNOLDS: I think that gay marriage is inevitable, so it’s not worth fighting either.
BOB GARFIELD: While down the hall, P-FOX was offering support for those who want to resign from homosexuality. In the absence of a unifying message, there was one recurring theme, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, make the media the message – how to exploit the collapse of the newspaper business, how to cultivate new channels for a conservative audience and, of course, how to neutralize liberal bias.
JOHN ZIEGLER: Nothing we do matters, if the filter of the news media is not remotely fair.
BOB GARFIELD: John Ziegler is a long-time media scold whose most recent film focused on the press’ evisceration of vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. He says conservatives have to watch one another’s backs.
JOHN ZIEGLER: Because if we’re not defending the people who are taking the arrows on our side, guess what’s going to happen? They’re all going to be lying dead on the battlefield, and we’re not going to have any more soldiers.
BOB GARFIELD: Much was said about getting around what Rush Limbaugh called “drive-by media” and here emerged at least one point of consensus. The decline of the traditional media brings an opportunity in the online world, if only because the news industry’s death spiral will silence many a liberal message and drive once and future conservatives to the Net. John Gizzi is the political editor at the conservative weekly, Human Events.
JOHN GIZZI: An opportunity to tune out the other critical reports and tune in a media they feel, if not exactly to their liking, is fairer. And that in the long run will benefit conservatives. To put it another way, you can read more of what you like.
BOB GARFIELD: The Internet, of course, offers more than a detour from the media filter. The convention was teeming with young Republicans determined to master the new media skills and technology pioneered by the Barack Obama campaign. One such was Brian Link, from Terra Eclipse, creator of the surprisingly lucrative website that propelled the GOP primary campaign of libertarian dark horse Ron Paul.
BRIAN LINK: It’s been said before but I think the old guard has kind of let people down a little bit and, you know, trust was kind of lost. And I think young people think that there’s an opportunity to build trust back up and build excitement back up and, you know, we're taking it upon ourselves to do so. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: On Facebook, on MySpace and on some GOP equivalent of Mybarackobama.com. Link was particularly atwitter about Twitter, the online app that suddenly has America micro-blabbing.
BRIAN LINK: It’s been interesting to see how people grab onto that and turn it into a political tool. People are walking around CPAC here, Twittering, oh, I just visited this booth, I just talked with this person. And people that aren't here can kind of feel the excitement. I mean, everybody’s the media now.
BOB GARFIELD: But, so far, not as many Republicans everybodies as Democratic everybodies. Joe Mansour of social media consultant the David All Group is still shaking his head about the general election pasting they took online at the hands of the Obama campaign.
JOE MANSOUR: Five-hundred-million dollars raised online, whereas the McCain campaign – I've seen the numbers – 75 to 100 million dollars raised online. But it’s more than just the money. It’s the email addresses, 13 million emails, you know, the actions driven through Mybarackobama.
BOB GARFIELD: Nor is just email addresses, Mansour says. It’s the art and science of building a community online, feeding off the ideas articulated by a party leader.
JOE MANSOUR: Having, you know, the coolest tools only takes you so far. I mean, I think Barack Obama was successful not because he had a really cool website and not because he had a really cool social networking site, but because he was a unifying figure that could unite the different parts of the Democratic Party, and they could get behind him, and he was a transformative figure. And I think that you need that on the Republican side. I mean, we're – we’re looking for – we’re looking for who that person’s going to be.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, yeah. That. I asked Joe Mansour if Limbaugh is his leader. He says, no. Then he ticks off a list of up-and-comers – Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint. And despite a disastrous performance delivering the Republican response to Obama’s address to Congress, he’s not counting out Governor Bobby Jindal either.
JOE MANSOUR: I mean, I don't think that anyone’s going to say that Bobby Jindal’s performance was, you know, a masterful work. But, you know, the same token, those sorts of response speeches are always hard. I think that it was a tall order to follow, you know, on any level. So I'm not going to criticize Governor Jindal too hard on it.
BOB GARFIELD: Ah, criticism. This raises a point. Technology is all well and good, but verily, the Web giveth and the Web taketh away. After the governor’s sing-songy debut as a party spokesman, the conservative blogosphere had its way with him. Rod Dreher, for one, said Jindal made Mr. Rogers look [LAUGHS] like Winston Churchill. That happened to be a funny line, from a conservative writer who admires Jindal, but also exactly the sort of message non-discipline so many CPAC speakers wish to eradicate. Here was Bill Whittle of the website Pajamas Media hosting a panel of –
BILL WHITTLE: - Conservatives and Republicans and Libertarians who have very different views about these social issues. We're going to talk about those different views and see if we can find a way to agree on what we disagree on.
BOB GARFIELD: Because, as Whittle so deftly put it, the movement’s choice is stark, a big tent, or a small coffin.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
JONATHAN KROHN: Four basic principles of capitalist conservatism are respect for the Constitution, respect for life, less government and personal responsibility.
BOB GARFIELD: Do you think that there is a movement – you’re talking about a movement - is there a movement right now, or is there just a bunch of fragmented constituencies?
JONATHAN KROHN: There is a movement. There is a movement.
BOB GARFIELD: And who speaks for the movement?
JONATHAN KROHN: I think that all the American people who have stood up for conservatism over the years ARE -speak for the movement. I think every individual who promotes conservatism in their daily life stands for the conservative movement. I think for those kids who promote the conservative movement in their – the conservative movement in their school classes stand for the conservative movement.
[VOICES/HUBBUB] I think that the very smallest person in the smallest area in the smallest corner of the country who believes in the conservative movement speaks for the conservative movement.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: That’s Jonathan Krohn, the smallest Republican, 14-year-old author of the book, Define Conservatism.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]