Bernstein: GOP must choose

Published November 23, 2012 11:08 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

By Jonathan Bernstein

For The Washington Post.

Conor Friedersdorf wrote a key piece just after the election arguing that Republicans have to choose between Rush Limbaugh and all the groups Limbaugh habitually sneers at. I think that's probably right. It's easy to overstate the role of changing demographics as an explanation for the 2012 election results — remember, the consensus of the fundamentals-based forecasters was for a narrow Obama victory — but it's probably true that Republicans at least are in danger of losing a lot of winnable votes by insulting large groups of voters.

So I'm reading with great interest Jim Geraghty's piece in the National Review basically calling Limbaugh to task for attacking Sandra Fluke along with hitting Romney for 47 percent and more. Or, to be more precise, I'm waiting with great interest for reactions, if any, from conservatives. Will they accept the notion that it's a bad idea to go around insulting and excluding people — if not actually bad, at least bad politics? Or will they continue to blame everyone but themselves for why group after group after group feels insulted by GOP rhetoric?

I don't know the answer. Clearly, the way that Limbaugh talks sells: There's a very large audience for it. Of course a "large" audience for a radio show, a cable news network, or even more so a book or Web site is nothing compared with the "large" it takes to win elections. Which creates the kinds of conflicting incentives that we're all familiar with by now: It almost certainly is good for anyone in the conservative marketplace to convert people from indifferent to actively, loudly antagonistic, but it's a disaster for politicians to do the same.

So the question is which of these incentives will win out: the electoral incentives (stop insulting people who can be won over!) or the commercial one (insulting people who aren't in the pool of potentially paying customers can be very good business!).

Note that part of the confusion is deliberate: Those responding to the commercial incentives will inevitably find plausible-sounding reasons why their behavior is good for their party in general, and they'll probably come to believe those arguments themselves. As will their audiences.

It's really not obvious at all which one wins out. And that's why it's worth watching closely any relevant skirmishes.

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics.