October 6, 2009

Beckoning to the GOP

Republicans shouldn’t follow Glenn Beck in opposing Cass Sunstein.

I watch more Fox News than you do.

I watch because I love it, but I also watch because I hate it. Say what you will about their apparent lack of regard for journalistic integrity, penchant for conspiracy mongering, or the intriguing role they played in the 2000 presidential election—but you can’t deny the fact that Rupert Murdoch makes good TV. Multi-layered flashing chyrons, split-screen commentary, and that ominous, perpetually twirling logo set an attractive backdrop for Murdoch’s propaganda factory.

You also can’t deny the network’s influence on the American political landscape. Using the enormous megaphone it receives as the nation’s most-watched cable news station, Fox single-handedly dominated the early debate on health care reform by continuously playing to right-wing fears of “socialism”, and was effective in shifting the focus of the debate to a select few rowdy town hall meetings and Tea Party protests. Masters at framing the debate, the preceeding was merely one example of Fox’s skill at parlaying broadcast frequencies into political gain—a game also mastered by Italian Prime Minister (and Murdoch adversary) Silvio Berlusconi. The rules of the game are simple: Pick a message and stick to it. Fox’s recent success, however, has been bolstered by the emergence of a fresh new face, one who marches to his own beat: Glenn Beck.

Beck, a former morning disk jockey, recovering alcoholic, and born-again Mormon, has quickly scaled the ratings totem pole at Fox since his October 2008 departure from CNN’s Headline News. The three million viewers who tune in nightly represent enough to rival even the numbers of Bill O’Reilly—the veritable patron saint of Fox News. Beck’s elevation to the upper echelons of cable commentary has come through a unique combination of theatrics, everyman appeal, and an unmatched ability to convince his audience that the nation is on the brink of collapse.

Recently, Beck has attempted to harness this latter talent by taking aim at President Obama’s various “czars,” a mission that kicked off with the targeting of “green jobs” czar Van Jones, whose past political affiliations led Beck to charge him as a “self-avowed radical revolutionary communist.” Jones’s subsequent resignation signaled triumph for Beck, who had struggled through an advertiser exodus following his July allegations that Obama is a “racist,” who “has a deep-seated hatred of white people.” Coming off the Jones victory, however, Beck was more brazen than ever. The party had latched onto his czar-ousting movement, and he was quickly assuming his throne as impetus to the right-wing echo chamber. Perhaps Beck would become the new Rush Limbaugh—part strategist, part entertainer. For entertainment’s sake, I could only hope.

But then I saw Beck’s September 3 post to his Twitter page: “Watch Dogs: FIND EVERYTHING YOU CAN ON CASS SUNSTEIN.” Could it be? Was Beck’s next target actually Obama “Regulatory Czar” and former all-star U of C law professor Cass Sunstein? Subsequent viewing of Fox News revealed that he was, in fact, doing just that—attacking Sunstein for wanting to live in a “crazy, radical world” where the government would harvest the public’s organs and felines would have license to sue their owners for catnip recompense. Predictably, the rest of the network was falling in line, drawing equally unfounded conclusions from snippets of the professor’s theoretical writings. Yes, like Van Jones before him, another über-liberal Obama adviser was about to be struck down by the mighty hand of Glenn Beck, and imminent national disaster would be averted. There was only one problem: Cass Sunstein is no Van Jones.

He doesn’t have former ties to radical Marxists, didn’t sign a petition implying the government had a role in 9/11, and you won’t find him on national TV cursing at Republicans any time soon. Hell, he isn’t even that liberal. It appeared Fox News had made a rare, critical error: Lost in the unrelenting energy of Glenn Beck, they failed to consider the endgame.

Instead of being demonized, Sunstein, also tapped to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), should be championed by the Republican Party. Frequently cited as the “preeminent legal scholar of our time,” Sunstein’s body of legal writing is as prolific as it is influential. His legal ideology is one of judicial minimalism, which, combined with his often libertarian public policy positions, leaves him a far cry from the supervillain of the Right—the “activist judge.” Is any of this relevant? Yes, because Sunstein has long been considered a likely nominee to the Supreme Court, which will likely see two of its seats open up in the near future. And with the appointment of Sonia Sotomayor plugging the Court’s vacancies with regard to both women and Latinos, the chances that one of the remaining two appointments will be filled by a white male increase dramatically. This is where Glenn Beck’s vilification of Sunstein becomes an issue for the Republican Party.

By rallying conservative opposition to Sunstein during his OIRA confirmation, Beck has effectively cemented the Right’s stance on the Nudge co-author, and signaled to Obama that Sunstein may be the type of politically divisive figure that would require knock-down, drag-out confirmation proceedings. After a lengthy, and not yet completed, health care debacle, this is the last thing the President wants. If Fox News actually has the best interests of the Republican Party in mind, joining Beck’s opposition is an outright mistake. Of the long list of names floated as potential SCOTUS nominees, perhaps none is more aligned with the views of the Right than the centrist Sunstein. Opposing Sunstein in these early stages is practically begging for Obama to opt for a less controversial, yet undoubtedly more liberal, selection to the High Court.

Unlike long-time Fox News stalwarts O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, who exhibit unfettered discipline while staying “on message,” Beck often appears to be a rogue—seemingly only concerned with propelling his own career, selling books, or booking new dates for his annual one-man comedy tour. As Senators Saxby Chambliss and John Cornyn have demonstrated, however, by placing holds delaying Sunstein’s confirmation vote, Beck seems to be influencing the far-right voice of the Republican Party. The only problem is that he shouldn’t be trusted to do what’s best for the party. So on September 10, when Sunstein was finally confirmed by the Senate in a 57–40 vote, Republican strategists should have been relieved at what amounted to a minor defeat for Glenn Beck. Whether Beck’s opposition will ultimately cause the party to miss out on a favorable SCOTUS appointment remains to be seen, however. I guess I’ll have to tune in to find out.

Steve Saltarelli is a fourth-year in the College majoring in Law, Letters, and Society.