Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Republican Party now just another show on Fox

David Sarasohn, The Oregonian

For more than a hundred years, the Democratic symbol has been the donkey. Depending on your outlook, it reflects either a humble reliability, or a certain braying stubbornness.

But in a sharp recent change, the symbol of the Republican Party is now the microphone.

Its symbolism is more obvious.

High-profile conservative leadership -- or at least the most visible opposition to President Barack Obama -- isn't coming from Republican politicians, who are pioneering new ways to look befuddled.

Republican governors hoping for a look in 2012 tried looking for ways to refuse part of the federal stimulus money -- while Republican members of their own state legislatures tried to assure the world that the governors didn't mean it, and the states would take anything they could get. Other GOP governors declared their eagerness to take whatever cash Louisiana, Alaska and South Carolina didn't want.

Republican congressional leaders have been having some trouble breaking through, although they've been congratulating themselves on their unanimity in saying no. Getting out their own message has been a little harder, but House Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia has a bold new idea: a Web site. "The message has not yet been delivered," Cantor told Politico.com, "but we'll continue to work at that."

Losing ground, conservatism has taken to the air. The vacuum is being filled by the vacuum tube.

Rush Limbaugh has not only exacted obedience from party leaders -- Republicans who say anything disrespectful about him, including party chairman Michael Steele, have to apologize -- but he claims a constantly wider role. Depicting himself as the Republican "last man standing," he's challenged the president to a debate, declaring, "If you can wipe me out in a debate .¤.¤. do you realize you will own the United States of America? You will have no opposition."

At least not from elected Republicans.

Meanwhile, as Republican identification numbers fall, Fox News ratings are jumping. Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck are seeing their numbers boom, while GOP congressional leaders might be found in the Witness Protection Program.

Trying to stir up the troops on a charge that the president bowed while shaking hands with the Saudi king -- and you can see how the GOP leaders have their finger on what's worrying Americans -- the folks from the National Republican Senatorial Committee knew exactly how to get credibility with their mailing list. "Please take a moment," urged the NRSC's fund-raising letter, "to view the video from Sean Hannity's show on Fox News last night and decide for yourself if the White House's explanation should be believed."

Republican political leaders looking for a place to build their futures know exactly where to go. Karl Rove went directly from the Bush White House to consulting and commenting with Fox, and except for being less able to order someone waterboarded, his party prominence is unchanged. While Mitt Romney is beginning to haunt the living rooms of Iowa and New Hampshire, Mike Huckabee has gotten his own Fox talk show, which could be a more direct route to the 2012 nomination.

Today conservatives are planning to hold Tea Bag parties around the country, protesting Obama proposals to raise taxes on the highest incomes. Actual Republican politicians are far off on the edge of the tea tray, but Fox News, in the words of The Washington Post's Howie Kurtz, "practically seems to be a co-sponsor."

Beck, Hannity, Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren have been promoting the event on their shows, and each plans to appear at a Tea Bag party somewhere in the country. GOP politicians' roles are low profile, but as Hannity excitedly promised his audience, "Don't forget, we're going to have Joe the Plumber."

The old Republican elephant was getting to be a kind of bulky symbol for the party, carrying all kinds of awkward environmental implications. Besides, an elephant covers a lot of territory, and may not really fit the party's increasingly narrow base.

The new symbol at least offers what Republicans desperately need: a voice.

They'll find out soon whether a microphone is the same as a message.

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