Can Romney Win Without Fox News?

Written by David Frum on Monday May 23, 2011

How Mitt Romney handles Fox News will tell a lot about whether he has the cunning and the toughness to be a successful president.

Three take-aways from Gabriel Sherman's important piece on Fox News and the GOP in New York mag:

1) What Republicans have been producing since January 2009 is a television program, not a political opposition. No rational opposition would have nailed its colors to the mast on the predictably unpopular Ryan budget without the votes to pass it. No rational opposition would have staked everything on defeating Obamacare without the votes to stop it. And no rational opposition would have showcased Michelle Bachmann, Donald Trump, and Newt Gingrich as party leaders. As reckless as these actions were in political terms, they make sense in programming terms. And when the de facto head of your party earns his living as a TV executive - and his most important deputy is a talk-radio host - this is what you get: three years of policy nihilism, three years of repeated self-outmaneuvering on the floor of Congress, and now a presidential campaign that seems intent on identifying the GOP with candidates who repel the voters the GOP most needs to win.

2) According to Sherman, Ailes understands and regrets what he's done to the GOP. That's why he shut down Glenn Beck. Why he talks regularly to President George HW Bush. Why Fox's coverage of Sarah Palin has become noticeably less worshipful since the Tucson shooting. Now Ailes is hunting for a more plausible presidential candidate. Yet his programming instincts over-ride everything. On talk radio and cable TV, confrontation sells. If you are imbued with that idea, it's hard to resist the thought that confrontation will work in politics too, and that NJ Governor Chris Christie must therefore be the solution. The Ailes mind may be able to think the thought that the GOP needs a softer face. But the Ailes programming instinct cannot accept the thought.

3) Meanwhile, Mitt Romney has been plugging along, off-camera, raising money, building support among business leaders and county party chairs. He has been the unspoken target of Fox's media campaign since 2009. Romney gets scant attention in the Sherman story, except as an example of a candidate whom Ailes finds "not compelling." Yet by any conventional definition, Romney is the Republican front-runner. Presumably he has been working hard to woo Ailes, and unsuccessfully. Ailes remains unreconciled. If Ailes throws Fox beyond a credible opponent, say  Tim Pawlenty, Ailes becomes Romney's most lethal and important enemy. How Romney handles Ailes will tell a lot about whether he has the cunning and the toughness to be a successful president.