Lost in the short-term attention commanded by Donald Trump in the first Republican primary debate was a long-term problem for the party, created by questions that compelled the candidates to take positions at odds with a majority of Americans.
While the debate questions were smart and sharp, they were also predicated on many conservative litmus tests. When the subjects of abortion, same-sex marriage, immigration and religion were aired, they elicited responses that, while pleasing to a core constituency, will be a tough sell in the general election. Is the party best served when the conservative media are literally defining the debate among candidates?
Consider that when Megyn Kelly observed to Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida that he favored a "rape and incest exception to abortion bans," Rubio was quick to respond: "I never said that. And I have never advocated that. What I have advocated is that we pass a law in this country that says all human life at every stage of its development is worthy of protection." Maybe Rubio really believes a rape victim should be compelled to carry a pregnancy to term. Or perhaps he thinks this is the only way to navigate the conservative cacophony.More coverageOpinion and analysis about the 2016 presidential campaign
The final round of questions pertained to God. Kelly asked Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and others to respond to a Facebook questioner who wanted to know "if any of them have received a word from God on what they should do and take care of first." Cruz quickly obliged. And Gov. Scott Walker was not to be outdone ("It's only by the blood of Jesus Christ that I've been redeemed from my sins").
Again, good fodder for evangelicals in GOP primaries, but not the best way to reach independents or moderate Democrats in the general.
The debate seems a textbook illustration of Jackie Calmes' thesis in a new paper titled, "They Don't Give a Damn About Governing: Conservative Media's Influence on the Republican Party." Calmes is best known as a national correspondent for The New York Times, but this work was published as a Joan Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. She told me recently that her interest in the influence of conservative media arose from a conversation with former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, the Republican from Mississippi.
Lott told Calmes that the Democrats moved to the center in the 1980s and '90s after losing five of six presidential elections, and that the GOP now found itself in the same position. But Republicans were hamstrung in making a similar move "because we've got this conservative media that stops us and jumps on us every time we try to moderate," Calmes related.
"Conservative media, having helped push the party so far to the antigovernment, anticompromise ideological right, attacks Republican leaders for taking the smallest step toward the moderate middle," she writes in the paper.
Calmes cites a Pew Research poll from October 2014 that found that, more than any other group, "consistent conservatives" rely on one source for information about government and politics: 47 percent cited Fox News. But the influence to which she refers extends to talk radio and a universe of online sites like Drudge Report, Breitbart, and the Blaze, where, she says, adherents can get their news in a manner that validates their beliefs, notwithstanding that the objective of those outlets is to draw clicks from adherents based on controversy that would not exist in a world of compromise, all the while turning a profit.
"They can just dismiss . . . any fact that doesn't comport with their bias, because they can find some source of information, somewhere, that will agree with them," she said. "The danger on the far right is that they are just talking to each other, and people just need to get more sources of information and to be open to the idea that the other side might be right once in a while." The retort from the right is, if the GOP would nominate the type of conservative purists envisioned by its media leaders, it could win the White House. Calmes is unconvinced.
"This is a complaint of the conservatives to the right of the Republican Party that goes back decades and most notably when they finally got their way in 1964, when Barry Goldwater was the nominee and he was shellacked," she said. "Now the answer to that from the conservatives then . . . it's parallel to what conservatives would argue now - is that Barry Goldwater lost because the establishment of the Republican Party abandoned him, and even some of the players then called him an extremist publicly and indicated they would not support him and might even support Lyndon Johnson."
Does the Republican National Committee worry that it has ceded too much to the conservative media? Not according to Sean Spicer, the RNC's chief strategist and communications director, who dismissed Calmes' findings as the sort of conclusion you get when mixing The New York Times, the legacy of John F. Kennedy and Harvard.
"The mainstream media are annoyed, frankly, with conservative media because they want to set the agenda, they want to ask the questions," he told me on CNN. "And conservative media in a lot of cases are the ones that are now breaking stories, and getting their stories pushed into mainstream media because they can't be ignored any longer." Calmes responds that she's been covering Washington for 31 years, including 18 at The Wall Street Journal and a few at The Dallas Morning News, both of which are considered conservative papers.
"I frankly come at this as a concerned citizen," she said. "We need two healthy parties in this country, and right now the Republican Party, despite evidence like midterm elections where they had big wins, the Republican Party will tell you themselves they are not a healthy party . . . There needs to be willingness to compromise, and that's how this government works."
Michael Smerconish writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and is host of "Smerconish" on CNN.