A moment of silence, please, for the Republican polemicist. The list of casualties from this election year will be long; the battlefield will be strewn with the corpses of famous politicians (Rick Santorum) and anonymous embryos (thawed by a Senate that takes marching orders from Marty McFly).
And when it comes to the Bush defender—the kind of commentator who's spent the GWB era aggressively defending his turf on radio, in books, and on TV—the medics might look at his injuries, clutch their kits, and quietly move on. The field of aggressive pro-Republican pundits, expanded by blogs and cable TV, has never been larger. And never have so few been so right about so little.
Not all conservative and libertarian writers are wedded to the Republican party; not all of them even lump in with "the Right," not matter how diligently liberal readers try to make that shoe fit. But since the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress, when the GOP ceased being a debating club for Newt Gingrich and became a vehicle for policy revolution, more and more conservative pundits have matched their fortunes to their party's. After Bush's first election, the migration continued. And the 2004 campaign had roughly the effect on this relationship that saving the world has on James Bond and his latest squeeze.
Turn over a few book covers and TV transcripts and the speed of the change is almost blinding. (This is, considering the material, a mixed blessing.) In 1993, John Podhoretz was a snarky ex-White House staffer dishing on the "follies" of the George H.W. Bush years in Hell of a Ride. Two years later, he was a co-founder of the Gingrich- (and later John McCain-) lionizing Weekly Standard. By the middle of Bush II's first term, he had cranked out a worshipful exegesis on "the First Great Leader of the 21st Century." Trawl back into the archives of Hannity and Colmes (the Hannity parts) or the forums of Free Republic and witness the same phenomenon—conservatives evolving from government skeptics into pro-Bush, pro-GOP Spartans.
And they've evolved into something else: failures. For most of the past two years, as the Republicans' fortunes have sunk (especially with independents and libertarians), the boosters have snuggled up to them in the quicksand. Sales of conservative books have plunged since the 2004 election; around 500,000 viewers have flipped from the Fox prime time lineup (not counting the apolitical honorary Aruban Greta Van Susteren) to other channels.
The ultimate effort of Republican polemicists—the Magna Carta, the He's Just Not That Into You—is Hugh Hewitt's Painting the Map Red. In earlier, better-selling tomes, the diehard Republican (sorry, "center-right") radio jockey stood up for Christian values and the epochal power of blogging. In Painting the Map Red, Hewitt posited that 1) the Bush presidency was an unalloyed good, 2) the Republican majority was all right, but would be better if it was even larger, and 3) the Democrats had to be crushed. How well did the book go over? Amazon.com has discounted it to $2.99. In hardcover.
Hewitt's book, like his far-more-popular blog, is nearly devoid of criticism of the Republican Party. The goal he set for the 2006 elections is a "national campaign built on a showdown over national security and ending the Democrats' obstruction." The lesson of Republican rule was not that the party could lose its way if it got arrogant, or that the administration needed the occasional gut check from conservatives and libertarians—Hewitt even supported the nomination of Harriet Miers, on the grounds that her confirmation would have given black eyes to the hated Donkey Party.
Like a nervous parent or a once-bitten-twice-shy girlfriend, Hewitt is incapable of seeing the GOP's faults. He applauds Speaker Dennis Hastert's anemic response to the wave of congressional scandals because, well, Republicans are better than Democrats. ("You can trust the GOP to clean its own House.") He predicts the survival of crooked Montana Sen. Conrad Burns, whose profligate pork spending and ties to Jack Abramoff have convinced the party to cut him loose, because, well, Republicans are better than Democrats. (Burns "could pull it off with straight talk and help from Bush," as if that means anything.)
Hewitt, and many of the pro-Republican bloggers/pundits/radio jabberers that he cites, have taken such a long breather from justifying their party's policies that they've forgotten how to. It's easy to sniggle at liberals like Markos Moulitsas but his "libertarian Democrat" manifestos are the kind of inward, searching reflections on the state of the political parties that simply aren't coming from Republican polemicists any more. Josh Trevino, a co-founder of the pre-eminent Republican-boosting blog, RedState, confronted Moultisas' arguments not by arguing that the GOP had more to offer libertarians, but that the Democrats offered less: the libertarian who joined The Enemy would "find himself in the company of people who do not grasp the connection between capitalism and freedom; he will find himself attending party meetings with neighbors who wish nothing more than to seize his household income for their own civic purposes," and so on. All boilerplate that didn't address the concerns libertarians loudly voice about the GOP.
It's simple—and, well, wrong—to suggest that the last few decades gushed with thoughtful Republican polemics. But the model of the new polemics isn't Barry Goldwater's (by way of Brent Bozell Jr.) The Conscience of a Conservative. It's A Texan Looks at Lyndon, J. Evetts Haley's blistering character assassination of JFK's genuine jackass of a successor. And the coming of the blogosphere, and its unlimited platforms for pro-Republican commentary, has done nothing for the right's intellectual heft. Trevino's RedState spawned SwannBlog, which bolsters former Pittsburgh Steeler Lynn Swann's run for governor by… bashing Democrats. Minnesota's conservative blog community spawned Kennedy vs. the Machine, which pushes Senate candidate Mark Kennedy by… bashing state and national Democrats.
The problem isn't that the authors and bloggers are negative. Hey, that's campaigning. The problem is their lack of ideas, their lack of a defense of the GOP, their lack of interest in justifying the party to its former faithful. They hate being told that the beloved party might need to be kicked into the minority to rediscover its reason for being. They hate it so much that they can provide scary pictures of Nancy Pelosi, nasty names for anti-PATRIOT Act Democrat Jon Tester, and even more evidence that they desperately need a little time back on the bench.
David Weigel is an assistant editor of Reason. He lives in Washington, DC.