23 August 2012
The Spectator Australia
Bunting, banners, and balloons are now rolling into Tampa, Florida by the truckload in preparation for next week’s Republican National Convention. The convention marks the close of a bruising year-long series of primaries, during which the party seemed determined to deny Mitt Romney the nomination.
But late next week, Romney will officially become the GOP’s Presidential candidate and de facto leader. Australians who tune into Romney’s acceptance speech may be struck by his similarities to one of their own centre-right party leaders: Malcolm Turnbull.
A few years ago, the two wealthy investment-managers turned-politicians emerged as the leaders of their parties-in-exile. Turnbull was settling into his role as opposition leader following Brendan Nelson’s ouster.
In the US, the media tagged Mitt Romney as the front runner for the 2012 Republican nomination. The centre right politicians, both greying at the temples (Turnbull a bit more than Romney), seemed to be a matched pair. Matched in both their fortunes and their misfortunes, it turned out.
By the end of 2009, both men found their pet issues, once well within the mainstream of their parties, had become anathema to their conservative base. Achievements became albatrosses.
As an anti-tax bloc formed in the Liberal party, Turnbull’s emissions trading scheme faced full-on revolt. Meanwhile, Romney’s healthcare reforms, forged in right-wing think tanks, went from conservative creed to socialist scourge with the passage of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act (soon known as Obamacare).
But here their paths diverged. Romney went on to become his party’s nominee, with a good chance of victory this November. For Turnbull, the fight over the ETS cost him the leadership in a dramatic December spill.
What accounts for their differing fates? One man adopted the position of conservatives and their media. The other refused to budge, agreeing to Labor’s ETS and belittling the Right in the process. The former stayed on top; the latter lost his job. Remarkably, Romney faced the tougher odds when his policy fell out of favour.
In 2008, the former Massachusetts governor centred his campaign on his individual mandate healthcare reform, a market-based solution to soaring medical costs. Then came the Democrats.
In an effort to build bipartisan support for national healthcare reform, the Left abandoned dreams of a singlepayer national system. Instead, they adopted Obamacare, a plan based on the one Romney had passed while governor. Obamacare became the bête noire of the Tea Party.
Suddenly the individual mandate at the heart of both Obamacare and Romneycare equalled ‘a total attempt to remake the country as founded and constituted’. That was the assessment of radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, and it became an article of faith among American conservatives. Romney had a decision to make.
He could double-down on the individual mandate, proclaiming that the Democrats’ adoption of Romneycare showed the power of right-wing ideas. Or he could side with Limbaugh and call for Obamacare’s repeal. Within a few months of Obamacare’s passage, Romney had deemed the act ‘unhealthy for America’ and demanded its abolition.
Nor was this his only sop to conservatives. On almost every issue, the former governor swerved to the right, even shifting positions on cap-and-trade and man-made global warming when the climate changed at home. He ingratiated himself with conservative media, understanding that he couldn’t win the nomination or the election without their support.
When Limbaugh became embroiled in controversy for calling a young woman a ‘slut’ for her endorsement of contraceptive coverage, Romney shrugged it off. ‘It’s not the language I would have used,’ he demurred.
Meanwhile, Romney has been beefing up connections between his communications team and the right-wing media, particularly internet sites like the Drudge Report and Breitbart. Lenny Alcivar, Romney’s campaign spokesman, credits that relationship with the success of the Republican message.
He argues it has forged ‘a new political reality’ in which conservative media have the power to shape the party platform as well as voter preferences. That new political reality exists in Australia as well, but Turnbull was either unable or unwilling to recognise it.
When the ETS came under fire from conservatives — particularly members of the conservative media — Turnbull turned hostile. ‘Do you think that the tide is turning a little on this carbon dioxide tax business?’ Alan Jones demanded of Turnbull, whom he accused of being a ‘Ruddlite’.
Turnbull stubbornly refused to yield any ground to the talkback king of Australian radio, insisting: ‘You know, it’s fine for you to carry on here as though climate change is a hoax and anyone who believes in it is an idiot. In that case, the world is run by governments led by idiots, by your standard.’
Turnbull sought to put as much daylight as possible between his role as opposition leader and Jones’s role as media personality. He told Jones: ‘I’m in the mainstream political business. My aim is to get more than 50 per cent voting for us. And I can tell you the vast majority of Australians want to see action on climate change.’
But what Turnbull missed was that public opinion was far from settled. Indeed, in facing down Jones he was taking on a shaper of that opinion. By failing to respect the power of right-wing media, Turnbull neglected a key constituency. Jones, Andrew Bolt, Miranda Devine and other leading conservatives led a sea-change in public opinion. They shifted the conversation from rising tides to rising taxes — and Liberal support from Turnbull to Tony Abbott.
Their influence did not go unnoticed. The Sydney Morning Herald noted: ‘Jones has been using his formidable influence to foment unrest in the Liberal heartland.’ The Monthly identified Bolt as ‘an important factor in the collapse of the political consensus for action on climate change’.
And at the ABC, Mark Colvin found evidence of even more direct sway: Liberal MPs switched their votes on ETS after their offices were flooded with messages following Bolt’s battle cry against the measure.
Turnbull stood his ground, never realizing it was shifting beneath him. It cost him his leadership. ‘Alan Jones,’ according to an Australian headline, ‘nail[ed] Malcolm’s coffin.’
For both Romney and Turnbull, conservative media radically altered the political climate. Romney adapted, becoming a partyleader who retained power by following more than he led. Turnbull stuck to his guns. He became, in turn, a leader with no followers.
Neither Romney’s slavish devotion nor Turnbull’s bitter rejection points the best way forward for right-wing politicians’ relationship with conservative media.
But their experiences show that for centre-right parties, right-wing media play a powerful role in shaping public opinion. Conservative leaders ignore them at their peril.
Nicole Hemmer is a research associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and teaches history at the University of Miami.