Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, stunned much of official Washington last week by announcing he was giving up his chairmanship and retiring to become a radio-talk-show host.
“Sometimes you can have a bigger voice outside, unshackled in your ability to communicate issues that are important,” he told Newsmax’s J. D. Hayworth, himself a former Arizona representative who now has a career hosting a talk show.
It seems that everywhere you turn, the line between media and politics is increasingly blurry. The two are starting to look like one big profession. Joe Scarborough, a former representative from Florida who is now a talk-show host on MSNBC, traveled to New Hampshire this month for a series of high-profile appearances in the nation’s first presidential-primary state. He did nothing to discourage speculation that he would re-enter politics, and he sold a fair number of copies of his new book The Right Path in the process.
“Public people used to be politicians or celebrities,” writes media critic Michael Wolff in the British newspaper the Guardian. “But there is now a separate category. If you are identified with certain opinions and an ability to express them, and if you can build yourself an audience, a partisan fan base — measured through social media — then you are an official opinionator, monetizable through books, television contracts, and the speaking circuit. This is why, even knowing you will not, in this life, be president, you run for president.”
Two decades ago, no one could have imagined the creation of figures such as Donald Trump or Sarah Palin, who have both made a long-term career partly out of people’s guessing whether they will run for office. “It has never been easier to enjoy a high-profile political career without the nuisance of actually having to run for an office, let alone govern anything,” notes Mark Leibovich in the New York Times.
Much of this can be traced to the spectacular media success of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, following his campaign to become the 2008 Republican nominee for president. Huckabee did well in early caucuses and early primaries but was soon elbowed aside by Mitt Romney and John McCain, the eventual nominee. But even during the campaign, Huckabee sent out signals that he would make good use in the future of his newly enlarged media profile. In the middle of the primary season, he flew to the Cayman Islands to give a paid speech at an awards dinner. After the nomination fight had concluded, he secured a lucrative perch as a weekend host on Fox News. The proceeds from that job helped him build a $3 million, 8,000-square-foot home in a Florida resort community. But Huckabee could easily parachute back into presidential politics. Early polls show him tied for first place for the 2016 GOP nomination with Senator Rand Paul, the son of former congressman Ron Paul, who built the family brand during three presidential runs.
Huckabee’s success prompted others to jump into the 2012 race. Newt Gingrich gave up his Fox News gig and impressed many with his debate performances and his victory in the South Carolina primary. He ended his race for the nomination even better known and later got a job co-hosting the revival of CNN’s Crossfire debate show. Herman Cain, an African-American business executive, briefly enjoyed front-runner status in the GOP field before withdrawing over a personal scandal. After the election, he became a successful radio-talk-show host and the head of a political-action committee. Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota wrote a book about her life experiences; it was timed for release just as her campaign for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination began in earnest.
The towering presences of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have so dominated the Democratic party that almost all the entrepreneurial action in building a hybrid media-political career has been on the Republican side. But that could change in the run-up to 2016. Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor who almost won the 2004 Democratic nomination, said, “You never say never” when reporters asked him if he planned to challenge Hillary Clinton. Another potential Democratic candidate could be California governor Jerry Brown, who has already run for president three times and is known to harbor little goodwill toward the Clintons. After his last effort, in 1992, he kept his media profile alive by becoming — what else? — a radio-talk-show host.
Should we worry about the perception that politics is taking on a circus-like aspect more than at any time in American history? Probably not, in my view. The trend is perhaps inevitable with the proliferation of media outlets and the increasing tendency toward celebrity worship.
Campaigns have fallen prey to freak-show coverage in which almost everything a candidate does or has done is potential fodder for scandal or exaggeration. In 2011, Indiana governor Mitch Daniels decided at the last minute not to run for president. That made many wonder just how much Game Change, a best-selling book about the behind-the-scenes pressures on the 2008 presidential candidates, may be influencing potential candidates — pushing them to take a pass on running. The book, written by journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, was scrutinized by several would-be presidential aspirants and their families for its depiction of life on the campaign trail and the attendant tensions that can develop between candidates and their spouses. South Dakota senator John Thune acknowledged that part of the reason he declined to run was that his wife had read the book. “It was not helpful,” he told reporters, noting that they both viewed it as a “downer.”
What should be of some concern is that so many people feel they can’t make much of a difference as legislators or political appointees. Congress has surrendered so much authority to the unelected federal bureaucracy that many members believe they have become powerless to control or oversee it. Even presidents often find that the bureaucracy can easily ignore or circumvent instructions from the White House.
“What’s happening over and over again is that the serious people are saying, ‘I just don’t think it’s worth my time anymore,’” says Bob Schieffer, host of CBS’s Face the Nation. “Which is an awful — and to me the worst — indictment you can make of our political system right now.”
Mario Cuomo, the former governor of New York, once quipped that you campaign in poetry but govern in prose. The former, he made clear, was more enjoyable than the latter. More and more people have decided they don’t need to worry about the main course of politics; they are going straight for the fun dessert. And, if you can attract the right amount of free media attention and don’t plan to win, you won’t even have to do the tedious fundraising to pay for your own cake.
What should worry us is that our nation’s looming fiscal and foreign-policy problems will require serious leadership very soon. I’m not sure the current environment is conducive to convincing that leadership to step forward.
— John Fund is a national-affairs columnist for National Review Online.