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Pawlenty: Talk Radio ‘Part of the Coalition, Not the Whole Coalition’

Politico’s report on whether Republicans “are being wounded by the flamboyant rhetoric and angry tone of conservative activists and media personalities” is worth reading for the quotes from top Republicans, most of whom amble around the question. Of the currently relevant figures (sorry, Bob Michel), Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R-Minn.) is the boldest.

The commentators are part of the coalition, not the whole coalition. The party needs to be about addition, not subtraction — but not at the expense of watering down its principles.

Nonetheless, I think the story misses something about the party’s Glenn Beck problem. It’s not just that conservative pundits like Beck, Rush Limbaugh, et al., are unpopular and controversial. It’s that they drive the GOP into very strange places.

The Democrats are in worse political shape than they were a year ago because unemployment is at 9.8 percent, the war in Afghanistan has grown less popular, and the bailouts of struggling banks are seen as wastes of money that haven’t worked. Republicans benefit when they talk about this stuff. But Beck and the others don’t let them talk about this stuff. For the past few months, they have moved the discussion onto fantasy terrain, accusing the president of reaching for dictatorial powers and surrounding himself with “radicals” who want to destroy capitalism.

In retrospect, the successful campaign against Van Jones, the former green jobs czar who resigned in September, was the turning point in the relationship between commentators and Republicans. Elected Republicans were not really talking about Jones until after Beck, with material from WorldNetDaily and conservative groups, had spent weeks pounding Jones for old, on-the-record quotes about how he’d once considered himself a “communist” and how Republicans were “a-holes.” When Beck discovered, via conservative blogger Jim Hoft, that Jones had signed a “9/11 truth” petition, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) became the first Republican to demand his resignation. And when Jones quit, Beck and the conservative commentary class gained clout. Since then, Republicans have obsessively gone after the president’s “czars” (a nonsense issue I’ve dealt with in the past) and after specific members of the administration, like “safe schools czar” Kevin Jennings and White House Communications Director Anita Dunn, whom conservative commentators were attacking for their past statements and associations.

This isn’t to say Republicans have been distracted or unsuccessful in Congress. They’ve certainly scored victories during this period. And by paying attention to these conservative witch hunts, they’ve definitely kept their base revved up. But in the current political context, it seems like they’re missing the forest for some shrubs. It’s as if Democrats tried to press their advantages in 2005 not by going after the Iraq War or the mishandling of Hurricane Katrina, but by spending weeks attacking mid-ranking members of his administration and claiming that President George W. Bush was driving the nation toward fascism. And remember, one of the huge political mistakes of 2005 was the Republican decision to do a full-court press on an issue that had come from conservative activists and pundits: the fate of Terri Schiavo.

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