By Nicole Hemmer
Before tacking left for the general election, Mitt Romney has to reconcile with a right flank that has never much liked him. Peace talks kicked off May 2 when Romney met with dozens of right-wing journalists and bloggers – off the record – at a private club on Capitol Hill.
Well, technically off the record. Throw a presidential candidate in a room with that many reporters and word quickly gets out. By the end of the day, The Huffington Post had the story. One of several loose-lipped attendees reported that Romney had extended “sort of an olive branch to conservative media.” A much-needed olive branch, if the primary season is any indication. During the battle for the nomination, the right dedicated a staggering amount of airtime, bandwidth and column space to thwarting Romney’s presidential aspirations.
In the fall, Rush Limbaugh made the point plainly. “Romney is no conservative,” he told his audience. “You can argue with me all day long on that, but he isn’t.” Erick Erickson, the editor of Redstate.com, piled on with a post titled “Mitt Romney as the Nominee: Conservatism Dies and Barack Obama Wins.” And at Right Wing News, John Hawkins savaged Romney as “a pampered, prissy, fake, spiteful son of a governor being served the G.O.P. nomination on a silver platter because he kissed the right establishment behinds, benefitted from an enormous media double standard, and has more money than everyone else.” Little wonder the Romney camp decided outreach was in order.
The meeting was a start, but for Romney to win in November, he has to find a way to woo, but not wed, conservative media. And there’s no better example to follow than Richard Nixon in 1968. The only president ever to resign, Nixon usually serves as a cautionary tale, not a how-to guide. But like Romney, Nixon faced a skeptical right-wing media that lambasted him as a “political weathervane” and a “dedicated phony.” Tough words, but Nixon couldn’t simply write off the conservative broadcasters who said them. As his speechwriter Pat Buchanan explained, Nixon understood that to win in 1968 “he had to make his peace with the Goldwater wing of the party.”
Unlike the “Massachusetts moderate,” Mitt Romney, Nixon should have been a shoo-in for conservative affection. As a first-term congressman and aspiring “Red-hunter,” Nixon won over the right with his service on the House Un-American Activities Committee. There he broke the Alger Hiss spy case, siding with the frumpy former Communist Whittaker Chambers to expose Hiss, a State Department employee who was later convicted of perjury for lying about his involvement in a Soviet spy ring.
But maintaining ideological purity while navigating party politics proved an impossible task. In 1952 Nixon joined Dwight D. Eisenhower on the Republican ticket. The problem? Conservatives considered Ike at best a Democrat and at worst (according to the founder of the John Birch Society) “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.”
By the time he ran for president in 1960, the once-popular Nixon found right-wing media particularly hostile terrain. At National Review, William F. Buckley Jr. was persuaded Nixon would prove “an unreliable auxiliary of the right.” Clarence Manion, host of the “The Manion Forum” radio program, agreed. “Like you,” he wrote Buckley, “my first 1960 objective is to beat Nixon. He is an unpredictable, supremely self-interested trimmer and has never been anything else.”
So solid was the resistance to a Nixon candidacy that in 1960, no conservative media outlet endorsed the vice-president either in the primaries or in the general election. Instead, they threw their energies into last-minute long-shot candidates and third-party alternatives. Manion began organizing a Draft Goldwater movement on behalf of “the courageous leader of conscientious American conservatism.” The editors of The Independent American went a step further with their (ultimately aborted) New Party Rally.
Nixon lost but didn’t learn. In 1962 he ran for governor of California, taking out the conservative Joe Shell in the primary and alienating the state’s substantial right-wing voting bloc. Conservatives stayed home, and he lost again. The morning after his humiliating defeat, a bleary-eyed Nixon famously growled at reporters, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” His retirement from politics didn’t stick, but the lesson about the conservatives and their media finally did. Having cast out the mainstream press, Nixon concentrated his attention on conservative alternatives.
Nixon began courting right-wing journalists and writers in August 1966, when he held his own off-the-record meeting with members of conservative media and organizations at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington. Like the Romney meeting, the secret rendezvous quickly went public. A front-page story in The Washington Post divulged all the details, including Nixon’s prediction that conservatism would be “politically respectable” by the next election. And while Nixon didn’t spell out his intentions for 1968, one attendee told the paper: “Lines of communication were opened that should be helpful later on.”
Having made his intentions known, Nixon dialed up the charm. In January 1967 he invited Buckley, Bill Rusher (publisher of National Review), and other members of the conservative media to his sprawling Fifth Avenue apartment. There he exhibited his virtuosic command of foreign and domestic policy. Rusher remained unmoved — Rusher would always remain unmoved when it came to Nixon — but Buckley? There was no surer way to Buckley’s heart than a vigorous display of intellect and insight. As Neal Freeman, Buckley’s personal aide, recalled: “I knew when we went down the elevator, early in the evening, that Bill Buckley was going to find some reason to support Richard Nixon.” True, Nixon was no conservative, but the heart wants what it wants. And a smart, experienced, electable Republican was exactly what Buckley wanted in a 1968 candidate. More than a year before the election, he was recommending Nixon as the “wisest Republican choice.”
Not everyone was so enamored. Rusher and a small contingent of fellow writers did everything in their power to forestall a Nixon endorsement at National Review. Devin Garrity, the owner of right-wing publishing house Devin-Adair, threw in for Reagan. Reagan himself had plans to swoop in and steal away the nomination, banking on Nixon’s unlikability to create an opportunity (a safe bet most of the time). Eyeing the 1968 race, Reagan dismissed Nixon as “the fellow who doesn’t get the girl.” After all, Reagan had already succeeded where Nixon failed. In 1966 he won the California governorship against Pat Brown, who had defeated Nixon four years earlier. But Reagan underestimated how much his own inexperience diminished his standing as a would-be suitor. Though he had many fans on the right, most agreed the former actor wasn’t ready for prime-time.
Eventually, conservative media lined up for Nixon. Once he clenched the nomination, endorsements sprouted up everywhere: the newsweekly Human Events, National Review, The Manchester Union-Leader. True, the editors of National Review admitted, Nixon was far from the ideal candidate. But they urged readers to keep the faith, “faith that when he gets the votes he needs, and no longer has to submit to that frightful wooing ritual mass democracy imposes on its leaders, he will speak with a clearer, firmer, less neutrally balanced voice.”
Not exactly a ringing endorsement. And it got worse. They noted that Nixon was hardly “as passionate a believer in the ingenuity of the free marketplace as, for instance, Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan.” And as president, “there will undoubtedly be plenty to criticize in his administration of the nation’s affairs.” Yet with all the ways Nixon was likely to disappoint, the editors encouraged conservatives to cast their ballots for him. At the very least he could give America “the impulse it needs on the way back to sobriety.” Nixon couldn’t take the nation to the Promised Land, but he could at least help them survive the wilderness.
In 1968, members of right-wing media fell in line, if not in love, hoping to make a go of pragmatic politics. Just as his failed campaigns taught Nixon to move right, Goldwater’s catastrophic 1964 loss persuaded conservatives they would have to move left. “No sense running Mona Lisa in a beauty contest,” Buckley said in 1967 before clarifying: “I’d be for the most right, viable candidate who could win.”
But in making Nixon “their president,” right-wing media swung too far in the other direction. Tom Huston, a conservative White House aide, begged National Review to come down hard on “the disastrous series of liberal appointments” following the inauguration. But the resulting editorial shrugged off Huston’s concerns, calling the appointments “mostly of non-ideological types.” The editors instead counseled conservatives to wait for a major foreign crisis to test the president’s mettle. “Then we shall see what stuff Nixon is made of,” they held, “then and not before.”
It would be one thing if they were Republican partisans, but these messengers of the right were keepers of a different faith. Their calls for patience, both during Nixon’s campaign and his presidency, cost conservative media their readers, their reputations and ultimately their leadership role in the movement. In its inaugural issue in November 1955, National Review had declared itself a “vigorous and incorruptible journal of conservative opinion.” Could it still make that claim when backing Nixon, a president who supported a guaranteed annual income, extensive environmental regulations and détente?
It turned out there was, briefly, a limit to how far they would follow “their president.” After he announced his plans to open relations with Communist China, the leaders of right-wing periodicals and publishing houses broke with Nixon. Rusher and Tom Winter of Human Events even spearheaded the search for another leading man, recruiting Ohio Congressman John Ashbrook to challenge Nixon in the 1972 primaries.
But just as they were reclaiming their oppositional voices, conservative media relinquished them again. When the Ashbrook candidacy failed to take off, National Review endorsed the Nixon-Agnew ticket. The editors chided their readers: “Now is not the time to be churlish.” Their advice went unheeded. The magazine had traded ideological purity for a seat at the table, and readers began to slip away. By 1973, National Review’s circulation lagged 20 percent behind its pre-Nixon heights. As Rusher explained in a memo to the editors: since National Review had failed to provide real opposition to the Nixon administration, “the conservative troops increasingly march off to tunes drummed out by latecomers.”
With this year’s nomination battle winding down, conservative media are making the same pivot toward Romney. As the nominee, he is their only chance to beat President Obama. And they are his only chance to keep the base on board while he Etch A Sketches his way to the center during the general election. Aware that full-throated conservatism won’t win over those crucial swing voters come November, some members of the right-wing media are willing to provide cover for Romney. National Review, which half-heartedly came out in support of Romney last December, has now thrown itself fully behind him. As the magazine’s editor Rich Lowry declared to Howard Kurtz at The Daily Beast: “If I have to manufacture enthusiasm, I’ll happily do so.”
Not everyone shares Lowry’s conviction. Erick Erickson claims that many on the right still “think Romney is not really a whole lot better than Obama.” He criticizes the Romney campaign for not reaching out to evangelicals, a group already hesitant to fully back a Mormon candidate. “Romney just expects their vote,” Erickson argued in a recent post. “He may get it, but not their passion or energy.” How much to stir up that passion and energy is a critical question facing conservative media. If Romney’s moderate turn toward the general election is actually a permanent return to his technocratic, nonideological roots, how far will conservative media follow him down that path?
Yet the partner most at risk in this relationship isn’t the media; it’s Mitt Romney. There’s an important difference between 1968 and 2012, one Romney must heed if he wants to successfully navigate the general election. In 1968, conservative media lost their identity as they compromised in favor of pragmatic politics. But today’s conservative media are far more powerful than their predecessors, and politicians far more likely to play second-fiddle to them.
The danger in 2012 is not that pragmatism will blunt conservative media. Rather, if these media insist on ideological purity, they could cost Romney both conservatives and moderates. His history of flip-flopping ensures he’ll never persuade conservatives that he shares their core values. And any attempt to prove he’s “severely conservative” will drive away independents wary of extremes.
Nothing highlights this danger more than the coming debate over same-sex marriage. When Obama declared his support for marriage equality on Wednesday, he forced Romney into a precarious position. If he fails to take a strong enough stand in opposition, Romney risks losing evangelicals’ already-soft support. If he fails to distance himself enough from same-sex marriage’s more provocative opponents, he risks losing swing voters with little appetite for cultural crusades.
Here Nixon is again a valuable guide. Richard Nixon never claimed to be a movement conservative, just someone who would attend to the right’s political desires. Like Nixon, Romney is a pragmatist who changes his views to match the political mood. From the perspective of the right, what Romney must now demonstrate is his belief that the current mood is fundamentally conservative, and that he will do what he must to keep the right on board. True, it’s not particularly inspiring. It’s practical and calculating, just like Nixon — who, remember, won a close election in 1968, won re-election in a historic landslide and built a coalition that sustained the Republican Party for 40 years.
Nicole Hemmer is a postdoctoral fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.