THEY'RE PAPER TIGERS! NO, THEY'RE TAKING OVER! NO, THEY'RE ...
Right-(sorta)-centrist he-man David Brooks doesn't think the wingnuts are so tough. Look, he says, at the '08 GOP primaries:
It is the winter of 2007. The presidential primaries are approaching. The talk jocks like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and the rest are over the moon about Fred Thompson. They're weak at the knees at the thought of Mitt Romney. Meanwhile, they are hurling torrents of abuse at the unreliable deviationists: John McCain and Mike Huckabee.
Yet somehow, despite the fervor of the great microphone giants, the Thompson campaign flops like a fish. Despite the schoolgirl delight from the radio studios, the Romney campaign underperforms.
Meanwhile, Huckabee surges. Limbaugh attacks him, but social conservatives flock.
Along comes New Hampshire and McCain wins!
... McCain wins the South Carolina primary and goes on to win the nomination. The talk jocks ... can't even deliver South Carolina!
Brooks thinks he's proved that the crazies don't have as much clout as they think they do. In fact, all he's proved is that they lose some clout when they're not all rowing in the same direction. Some, as he said, liked Thompson, others Romney. And there were further divisions: Sean Hannity was continuing his bromance with Rudy Giuliani, as was Pat Robertson.
The lack of a coherent, relentlessly reiterated single message from the usually highly disciplined GOP noise machine left the rank-and-file to think for themselves -- and some of them, yes, acted in ways their leaders didn't like. Many evangelical voters ignored the Huck's-a-squish talk and persuaded themselves that Huckabee would bring a much-needed theocracy to America. Military-minded righties responded to McCain's saber-rattling -- which he seemed to made the focus of his campaign almost unwittingly, as if he didn't quite realize that the best way to win over modern GOP voters was to out-butch his opponents on the war, disregarding the fact that the mainstream commentariat said the war was broadly unpopular.
Brooks goes on to argue that wingnut talkers failed on immigration:
Back in 2006, they threatened to build a new majority on anti-immigration fervor. House Republicans like J.D. Hayworth and Randy Graf, both of Arizona, built their re-election campaigns under that banner. But these two didn’t march to glory. Both lost their seats.
Wow! Big victory for the forces of reason! That must be why the Bush administration's immigration reform effort passed with flying colors! ... Er, what's that? It didn't? Oh, yeah, right.
As Brooks says:
Just months after the election and the humiliation, everyone is again convinced that Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity and the rest possess real power. And the saddest thing is that even Republican politicians come to believe it. They mistake media for reality. They pre-emptively surrender to armies that don't exist.
Right. That's the point. If people think you have power, if they defer to you because you seem to have power, you, um, have power.
Besides, it's different now. This isn't a primary season with multiple preferred outcomes. It's not even a right-wing battle against a right-wing president whose position on one issue doesn't jibe with that of his party's base.
There's a Democrat in the White House and there are Democratic majorities in Congress. There's one enemy. There's one target. And much of what's being pursued by the Democrats is economic, so the fat cats and lobbyists are out front, and the Christians are rowing in the same direction as the fat cats (because it's always easy to get them to believe their interests and the fat cats' interests coincide), and the right-wing talkers have talking points exquisitely crafted by the finest artisanal talking-point crafters in the lobbying community.
So, no, David, the bloviators aren't paper tigers.
Peggy Noonan has a very different message today:
When William Safire died the other day, we lost one of the Elders of journalism and the argumentative arts. We've been losing a lot of them lately: Walter Cronkite, Bob Novak, Don Hewitt, Irving Kristol....
You know the current media environment. You think I'm about to say, "Boy, what's said on cable, radio and the Internet now is really harmful and dangerous." And you're right, and it is. Some of the ranters don't have the faintest idea where the line is....
It is a daily agitating barrage that coarsens and inflames. It tears the national fabric. But it could wind up doing worse than that.
This is why, I think, so many people ... are worried that our elected leaders are not safe, that this overheated era will end in some violent act or acts.
... knowing where the line is, matters. Seeing clearly the lay of the land, knowing the facts of the country and your countrymen, matters.
Which gets us back to Safire and Cronkite and Novak and the rest. They knew where the line was.
Safire? Novak? Kristol? They knew where the line was? The hell they did. They were the transitional generation: they watched the crazies rise up -- and happily worked hand in glove with them. They gave them mainstream cred. They used their Georegetown-cocktail-party reputations to blur the distinction between right-wing bomb-throwing and business as usual.
If a politician or a large number of workers in a federal building end up dead sometime soon, the late lamented alleged line-observers will not be exempt from responsibility.