Poor Mitt Romney has become a Republican punching bag as leaders within the party denounce his post-election comments about how President Obama won re-election by promising government-funded "gifts" to minority groups and young voters. As Republicans jab Romney though, they're missing the larger, more pressing point: They don't have a Mitt Romney problem. They have a Fox News problem.
Romney's "gifts" put-down echoed the infamous claim Romney made during the campaign that 47 percent of Americans see themselves as "victims" and are overly dependent on the government. With the campaign concluded, lots of fellow Republicans now feel free to bash Romney:
• "It's nuts," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
• "I absolutely reject what he said," announced Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
• "When you're in a hole, stop digging. He keeps digging," complained Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
Though prominent conservatives are now lashing out at the former presidential candidate, the truth is Fox News has loudly championed the divisive philosophy behind Romney's "47 percent" and "gifts" comments for months and practically authored them for the Republican candidate. Last week Fox talkers cheered Romney's "gifts" post-election critique, treating it as a universal truth. (According to Fox Business host Stuart Varney, Obama was "buying votes with taxpayer money. Handouts all over the place.")
And it's not just a Fox News problem. Republicans have an even more expansive right-wing media problem (television, radio, Internet, etc.), which now doubles as the face and voice of the GOP and which celebrates the kind of toxic "47 percent" and "gifts" rhetoric that's being condemned within the party. The far-right press is convinced Obama won re-election by "offering" voters a "check" in exchange for their support.
As Media Matters noted:
Fox host Bill O'Reilly said that voters feel economic anxiety and just "want stuff," while Fox host Eric Bolling said Obama is a "maker versus taker guy." Fox contributor Monica Crowley said that the election showed that "more people now are dependent on government than not." Rush Limbaugh compared the president to Santa Claus, saying that "small things beat big things" in the election and "people are not going to vote against Santa Claus."
In fact, O'Reilly and Limbaugh rushed to take credit for Romney's "gifts" comments last week, since both of them had been pushing the "maker vs. taker" narrative in the wake of Romney's election loss.
The split over Romney's "gifts" remark highlights the larger divide within the conservative movement between two distinct camps: activists and politicians who want to get more Republicans elected vs. right-wing media players who want to grow their audience.
Note that after the Republican flop on Election Day, talk radio's Laura Ingraham dismissed conservative hand-wringers who worried about the political future by stressing that "talk radio continues to thrive while moderate Republicans like John McCain and to some extent Mitt Romney continue to lose presidential elections." That's how hosts like Ingraham view the political landscape. That's how they determine success and failure, not by tallying the wins and losses posted by Republicans candidates, but by counting up the number of radio stations that carry their syndicated show.
The same is true with Daily Caller editor Tucker Carlson. Asked why the conservative media completely failed in their attempt to "vet" Obama, who easily won re-election despite four years of hysterical, far-right claims about him, Carlson told BuzzFeed his publication's work had been a success because traffic to the site was up. (Carlson also blamed the "legacy media" for being hostile to his site's supposed "journalism.")
I'm sure that's comforting news to RNC leadership. And I'm sure the Daily Caller chasing inane, anti-Obama conspiracy theories for the next four years will put the Republican Party on firm footing for 2016.
For now, it's easy to blame Romney. That's what losing parties often do after an election, they pile-on the vanquished candidate. The part that would take some guts and fortitude would be calling out the right-wing media that are generating the type of hate rhetoric that Romney embraced and routinely used during the campaign.
Republicans won't because they're intimidated by the right-wing media's power. That's why New Jersey Governor Chris Christie quickly got on the phone with Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch after Murdoch tweeted that Christie, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and his bipartisan appearances with Obama, needed to re-endorse Romney or "take the blame" for the president's re-election.
Murdoch: Jump! Republicans: How high?
That unhealthy relationship is the reason why, when it comes to the simple question of whether America is divided between "makers and takers," and if the 62 million Americans who voted for Obama represent a decaying nation of moochers in search of handouts, there's a wide gulf within the conservative movement. The right-wing media consider the claim to be a central tenet, while Republican leaders think saying it out loud is completely batty and a prescription for an electoral losing streak.
So yes, those are conspicuous handcuffs the GOP is wearing: Fox News has hijacked the party's communications apparatus and is pushing the type of paranoid, blame-the-voter rhetoric that loses elections, and the type of rhetoric Romney's now being blamed for. But the GOP can't turn it off. In fact, most Republicans can't even work up enough courage to ask Fox News to turn down the volume.
Unwilling to acknowledge the GOP's future poses a long-term media problem (the topic is not to be discussed), Republicans pretend they have a short-term Romney one.