< Right On Red

Transcript

Friday, November 07, 2008

BOB GARFIELD:
Former Clinton staffer John Podesta is heading up Barack Obama’s transition team, but he’s made it clear he will not be pulling a Dick Cheney by sticking around when the administration goes live. Instead, he'll be going right back to the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank he started in 2003.

Back then, with the rise of neo-conservatism, the ascendancy of Fox News Channel and ubiquitous conservative talk radio, the Center for American Progress and its offshoot, Media Matters for America, were formed to build out an equal and opposite infrastructure.

Eric Boehlert is a senior fellow for Media Matters, and he joins us once again. Eric, welcome back to the show.
ERIC BOEHLERT:
Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD:
Do I have that right, that the Center for American Progress and Media Matters were formed to fight the vast right wing conspiracy with the vast left wing conspiracy?
ERIC BOEHLERT:
[LAUGHS] We prefer infrastructure building. I mean, clearly the Republicans, conservatives through the Reagan years and even through the Clinton years, they were able to continue to accelerate sort of their infrastructure building mostly through D.C. think tanks which conservatives had long dominated. And on the liberal side and the progressive side, there wasn't really anything.

BOB GARFIELD:
But the right would say that the left has always had that infrastructure, called “the media.” [LAUGHS]
ERIC BOEHLERT:
Right, and then that’s certainly been sort of the talking point and the propaganda from the right for almost four decades. But I would just go ask any veterans from the Clinton Administration if they thought for eight years the D.C. press was sort of on their side, as they chased down Whitewater [BOB LAUGHS] and impeachment and Travelgate.
BOB GARFIELD:
Yeah.
ERIC BOEHLERT:
I mean, they were at war with the press for eight years.
BOB GARFIELD:
Now, I don't know how much of this is a direct result of the work of the Center and of Media Matters, but the landscape is so [LAUGHS] astonishingly different in 2008 than it was a mere five years ago. Could you run down the list, you know, beginning with MSNBC and The Huffington Post?
ERIC BOEHLERT:
Well, it’s just amazing. If you think back four years ago, where there was very little. There was no Huffington Post, which is now getting twice the traffic of The Drudge Report. Media Matters had just launched in the spring of 2004 but really wasn't getting, you know, the kind of attention that we're getting now. You have bloggers like Firedoglake, Glenn Greenwald. A lot of these key cornerstone bloggers came in after the disappointment of the John Kerry loss.

And you mentioned [LAUGHS] MSNBC. I mean, in 2003, they fired Phil Donahue on the eve of the Iraq War. He was their number-one-rated talk show host, and they fired him because [LAUGHS] MSNBC was sort of uncomfortable having, you know, a liberal antiwar face on TV.

Now we've got, of course, Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow who are putting up all kinds of impressive rating numbers basically doing progressive shows.
BOB GARFIELD:
I want to play something for you. Just listen to this:
[CLIP]:
[AUDIENCE LAUGHING]
BEN AFFLECK AS KEITH OLBERMANN:
Our fourth story on the countdown. In its last desperate moments, the McCain presidential campaign has decided to get its Nazi on. Asked at a Toledo rally yesterday to justify the invasion of Iraq, the Arizona senator said, quote, “When a brutal dictator threatens his neighbors, responsible democratic governments simply must act. Hitler is a good example.”
[LAUGHTER]
So let me -
[END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD:
Now, that’s a parody on Saturday Night Live a week ago of Keith Olbermann. Was that not a shot across the bow at the progressive media for verging on self-parody, which I think, almost by definition, reduces credibility?
ERIC BOEHLERT:
No. That was a shot at Keith Olbermann ‘cause he’s a star on cable TV. I don't think the sketch had anything larger to say about the progressive movement. That was just making fun of someone who’s famous on TV.
BOB GARFIELD:
All right, I want to ask you one more thing.
ERIC BOEHLERT:
Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD:
This movement most likely could not have flourished the way it has, and John Podesta’s dreams could not have been realized to the extent that they have been, without a Bush presidency to push against. It’s easier to fight against something that’s egregious.

Now that a presumably sympathetic Obama Administration is in power, with a presumably sympathetic Democratic Congress, does this take some of the wind out of your sails? What are you going to be doing for the next four to eight years?

ERIC BOEHLERT:
Oh, that’s easy. I mean, at Media Matters, you know, I mean, it’s always about being a watchdog on the press and looking for conservative misinformation. I mean, within hours of Barack Obama’s election, I mean, countless instances of pundits and columnists suggesting whatever Barack Obama does, don't try to govern from the left because this is a center-right country, it’s a conservative country and, you know, the last thing he should do is adopt progressive policies. That was within hours of his [LAUGHS] landslide blue state victory.

So the Beltway media has its particular viewpoint, and I think a lot of it is sort of built on years of conservative misinformation. And it'll be just as important in the next four years as it was for the previous to keep an eye on this stuff and to try to flush out this conservative misinformation in the press.

And, obviously, the right wing press is going to go, I think, frankly, haywire with an Obama Administration, and it’s important that their talking points and their rallying cries don't seep into the mainstream and become conventional wisdom.
BOB GARFIELD:
Eric, thank you once again for joining us.
ERIC BOEHLERT:
My pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD:
Ross Douthat is a senior editor at The Atlantic and author of Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.

Like other conservative thinkers, he’s been pondering how the political right, which only eight years ago envisioned a so-called permanent Republican majority, could have been so outflanked by the progressive movement.

Now that the juggernaut built from the Goldwater/Reagan Republicans, working class Reagan Democrats, evangelicals and interventionist neo-cons has fallen to pieces, the brain trust is focusing on how to put it all back together. No easy task, says Douthat, as exemplified by the once-united, now-divided conservative media.
ROSS DOUTHAT:
You had a lot of conservative writers who work for more mainstream/liberal organizations, writers like Peggy Noonan for The Wall Street Journal and David Brooks for The New York Times, who were harshly critical of the Palin pick, especially.

And then you had people springing to Palin’s defense, usually from within the conservative media, so writers for National Review and The Weekly Standard, bloggers, and especially talk radio.

And so, you had this divide between conservatives working in the mainstream media and conservatives working in the conservative media over the direction the McCain campaign should be taking.
BOB GARFIELD:
But to rebuild the movement, can these two camps, the National Review intellectuals and the Sean Hannitys, find common ground? I mean, can you square the circle?
ROSS DOUTHAT:
Any successful political movement in a mass democracy like the United States has to square a circle between intellectualism and populism. And I think the challenge for future GOP politicians is to find a way to have a wonky populism, as opposed to just an angry populism.
BOB GARFIELD:
All right, there’s a thin line, as you know, between populism and demagoguery.
[OVERTALK]
ROSS DOUTHAT:
Oh, yes.
BOB GARFIELD:
Did the GOP cross that line?
ROSS DOUTHAT:
I mean, I think in this campaign there was very little substance to McCain’s message, and I think where there was substance it was kind of stupid. So yeah, I mean, I think the GOP needs to give the impression of being more intelligent and more interested in policy and less interested in demagoguery.

I would just say, though, that there's a sort of haze of nostalgia that liberals like to project over the right wingers of the past, and you say, well, you know, William F. Buckley was very intellectual but today’s right wingers aren't intellectual at all.

But, of course, when William F. Buckley was around, you know, liberals were saying that Barry Goldwater was a hateful demagogue, and Buckley famously defended none other than Joe McCarthy. So the intellectuals of the right have always coexisted with the populists of the right, just as the intellectuals of the left have coexisted with the populists of the left. And this is sort of the pattern in American democracy.
BOB GARFIELD:
Which medium, which magazine or TV channel do you suppose will be the standard-bearer for whatever the reconstituted conservative movement turns out to be?
ROSS DOUTHAT:
Well, I think to their credit, both National Review and The Weekly Standard have done a decent job already of trying to rethink the GOP’s policies, and especially on domestic policy. And I'm a little biased because they've published some of my articles [LAUGHS].

But I think one thing the conservatives really miss is another neo-conservative magazine that Irving Kristol, the godfather of neo-conservatism, helped found, called The Public Interest, which was the place where, you know, ideas about welfare reform and school vouchers and so on were hashed out. And it went out of business four or five years ago, and I think that that is precisely the kind of journal that the Republicans need.

But I think that if you take a step outside those outlets into the broader conservative movement, the activist groups, talk radio and so on, the narrative that’s emerging after this election, I think, is an enormously self-defeating one. It’s a narrative that says, well we lost in 2006 because we weren't conservative enough and had embraced big government, and we lost in 2008 for the same reason.

And there’s a big danger for Republicans that they'll say, well conservatism is fine, we don't need to change that, we just need to be truer to our principles, when, in fact, the ground really has shifted under the party’s feet.
BOB GARFIELD:
If we agree that the GOP is not about to turn its back on populism and we agree that conservative talk radio and Fox News Channel are ground zero for populism -
ROSS DOUTHAT:
Mm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD:
- and if we can further agree that they are often enough demagogic stains on our democracy -
ROSS DOUTHAT:
[LAUGHS] I'm not sure I'd go quite that far, but -

BOB GARFIELD:
Well, what role do you suppose that they will have in the reconstitution of the conservative movement?
ROSS DOUTHAT:
Kind of the same role that you've seen on the left, actually, during the Bush years, whether it’s this leftward turn that MSNBC has taken or the exploding left wing blogosphere - the Netroots, Daily Kos and so on. These are not hard-hitting intellectual places. They are sources of left wing populist anger against the excesses of the Bush Administration.

Talk radio and Fox News and so on will become sort of a focus for rock-ribbed Republican partisan mobilization. You know, the genius of the Obama campaign was that it managed to piggyback on that kind of angry left wing grass roots, but he himself projected a unifying post-partisan image and message to the rest of the country. And that’s what the Republicans will have to do. It’s very hard to pull off, and it’s very easy to see that kind of anger pulling the party downward into a permanent minority status. But it could go either way.
BOB GARFIELD:
Well, that’s what I'm so fascinated in is this question of anger pulling the party downward.
ROSS DOUTHAT:
There’s definitely a sense in which partisan media creates a sort of cocoon. For years, conservatives always talked about the liberal cocoon and they would say liberals who just read The New York Times and The New Yorker, and so on, never really understood that there was a world beyond those institutions. And so, you have the film critic Pauline Kael’s famous line about, you know, how could Nixon win? I didn't know anybody who voted for him, right?
BOB GARFIELD:
Hmm.
ROSS DOUTHAT:
But as conservatives have built up their own infrastructure, they've also built up their own cocoon. And you've seen this over the last four to six years, where for a long time, in the midst of the Iraq War, if you turned on Fox News and listened to talk radio, all you heard was that things were going well and the liberal media wouldn't report the good news. That kind of cocooning, I think, is usually the source of political defeat.
BOB GARFIELD:
Ross, thank you very much for joining us.

ROSS DOUTHAT:
Hey, it was a pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.
BOB GARFIELD:
Ross Douthat is a senior editor at The Atlantic and coauthor of Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.