Political Hay

The Senator and the Anchor

A losing bill and bad ratings with Jon Kyl and Katie Couric.

By 6.15.07

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It isn't hard to see why they lose.

The other day Arizona's Republican Senator Jon Kyl sat down with the Wall Street Journal for a discussion about all the heat he's taken for what the paper termed Kyl's "efforts to forge an immigration compromise." Several days later, ex-CBS anchor Dan Rather unloaded on his old network, weighing in on Katie Couric's dismal ratings in Rather's old job.

What do these two seemingly disparate subjects have in common? What could possibly connect Arizona's junior Senator, Ms. Couric, the losing immigration bill and tanking television ratings?

In two words: conservative principles, or more accurately, the lack thereof.

Reading the Kyl interview is a vivid exercise in understanding exactly what spending too much time in Washington can do to even someone generally viewed as a conservative. Here is Mr. Kyl attacking the concept that he and his fellow Senators (including his Arizona seat mate, presidential candidate John McCain) actually support an amnesty bill. "It's impossible to make the existing system work so we have to change the law, and changing the law requires Democratic votes, so you have to make concessions to Democrats."

In a blink Kyl reveals the mindset for which Washington is so notorious. He is not in the Senate to represent the conservative principles which he presented to Arizona voters. No, he is in the Senate to "make concessions to Democrats." Kyl goes on to say that "[t]here is only one reason to do what I am trying to here, and that is to get a problem solved that has got to be solved."

The thought that the way to solve the problem is to have candidates go to the American people in the next elections, or the next and the next and the next, to win a majority of votes to secure the border -- when in fact this authority and the money to do it is already in place -- simply is not considered to be dealing with reality. Executing the law as it is now written and, failing that, winning back control of the Senate in 2008 and electing the next president to do precisely that, is automatically ruled out.

We have been here before. When Ronald Reagan gave that famous October, 1964 televised speech for GOP nominee Senator Barry Goldwater, he outlined an entire conservative platform based on conservative principles and the reality of what liberal New Deal policies had already done to the country. Goldwater lost in a landslide. Neither Reagan nor the gathering conservative movement gave up. For years afterwards, in every successive election in which his own name was on the ballot for Governor of California or president, Reagan was attacked as an extremist who simply was unwillingly to acknowledge reality. His response was to re-double his efforts, to take his principles to the country and campaign for like-minded candidates. He did not always win. But he in fact was able to turn the debate from the automatic assumption that the answer to all problems was to enlarge government, continually raise taxes, appoint liberal judges, and accommodate the Soviet Union.

The critical difference between Reagan and Establishment Republicans who believed, just as Jon Kyl believes today, that their job in Washington was to "make concessions to Democrats" was that Reagan believed it was his job to represent America in Washington. Kyl and his GOP colleagues clearly believe the reverse --- that it is their job to represent Washington to America. Representing America to Washington meant Reagan said and did things that made Washington insiders cringe. From tax cuts to the military build-up to the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court to his speech demanding the Soviets tear down the Berlin Wall, Reagan was consistently advised by those in the grip of the Washington fevers that he was wrong, ill-advised, and that X,Y or Z Reagan initiative was just not the way things were done.

By the time he left the presidency, and certainly by the time of his death, millions of Americans had come to realize that Reagan's conservative principles did in fact work. They also understood that the liberal subtext of the media and Washington insiders had been exposed, that it could in fact be overcome. Reagan had become the very embodiment of the American "can do" attitude that is such a critical component of understanding the American people and American culture. So it doesn't take much for Americans to look at the Kyl-supported immigration "compromise" to understand that it is Kyl -- and others including South Carolina's Lindsey Graham -- who simply don't "get it." When Kyl says in a remarkable statement that "Democrats won't allow" a policy of "enforcement first," he epitomizes the idea that it is a Senator's job to represent the Senate and Washington to America instead of the reverse. It is no wonder that conservatives' instinctive response is to go out, change the debate, and get votes to change Senators. They feel not the slightest obligation to "work with" Ted Kennedy. To the contrary, they believe their job is to get more votes in the Senate to defeat Ted Kennedy. It is a fundamentally different approach to the idea of leadership in Washington than that of Mr. Kyl.

LAST FALL, I WROTE A PIECE in this space discussing Ronald Reagan's view of losing elections, mentioning in passing that while conservative principles were now part of the bedrock of America they would never surface in that citadel of elite American liberalism -- The CBS Evening News. "The philosophical presentation of the new CBS News hasn't changed a whit..." I said, pointing out what is now a seriously hard-to-accept fact over at CBS that is truer now then when I wrote it: the high point of Katie Couric's ratings career at CBS was the night she had Rush Limbaugh on-air for a brief segment featuring Limbaugh delivering his own opinion. It was easy to see that it would be all down hill from there for Katie -- and it has been. While Rush Limbaugh has a well-known buoyantly warm-and-fuzzy on-air manner, it is a serious mistake to think that he spiked Katie's ratings because of his personality. This is akin to thinking Reagan won two presidential landslides because he was "genial" or had that ready smile. The success of both is tied unmistakably to their clear understanding and articulation of conservative principles.

Yet quite predictably, even now, floundering around in the television ratings basement, CBS has not a clue about its problems. Infighting among the troops has broken out. Hilariously, Dan Rather pops up to charge CBS with "tarting" up the news, drawing instant wrath from CBS executive Les Moonves and Katie's boss, Clinton friend, and veteran Mainstream Media honcho Rick Kaplan. In the middle of the war of words Rather, unsurprisingly and doubtless unconsciously, put the traditional liberal bias on display. "We have enormous life-or-death issues and challenges facing us in this country and the world today," he told the Washington Post's Tom Shales. "Everything from the dismantling of civil rights enforcement within the Justice Department to the war in Iraq to news of secret prisons in Europe and, of course, the next presidential election."

There isn't enough space to deal with all of Rather's liberal assumptions, but let's take his civil rights charge. Abigail Thernstrom, a vice-chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, long ago asked another question altogether about the behavior of Justice Department career employees in this area, accusing them of rank liberal partisanship in the making of civil rights policy. Would CBS ever dream of following up on Ms. Thernstrom's premise? Are you kidding? CBS, as with other liberal institutions, is wedded to rigid liberal doctrine that insists among other things that career Justice lawyers (i.e., liberals) are always right, any American Southern state in their sights is always wrong and racist to boot. They look at George W. Bush (as they looked at Reagan and Goldwater) and see Bull Connor. So intent are they on fulfilling their stereotypes they see no contradiction (and certainly no bigotry!) in simultaneously demanding civil rights for Mexican-Americans while they insist on getting the political head of the first Mexican-American Attorney General.

The problem for CBS is that in 2007 most Americans view the 1960s as ancient history. In a post-Reagan era, listening to Rush Limbaugh and his conservative talk-radio compatriots, creating and contributing conservative videos all over the Internet, Americans understand the implicit story line of liberal news organizations. They understand that exchanging Dan for Katie is a meaningless exchange -- the new boss same as the old boss, "tarted up" or not.

And so -- Americans don't watch CBS. And they won't accept the idea of an immigration bill that is cobbled together because of a felt need on the part of various Senators to appease Ted Kennedy. They know instinctively that when they see lines of Americans whose travel plans have been screwed up because they can't get a U.S. passport to travel to Mexico or Canada, when they realize 3 of the Fort Dix plotters were not only illegal aliens but were stopped 75 times (!!!) by various police authorities and never once had their status questioned, the very notion that a Washingtonized-immigration bill is going to "solve the problem" of immigration is hilarious nonsense.

So take your pick. The immigration bill or lousy ratings for CBS News. Jon Kyl's idea of what it means to be a Senator or Katie/Dan's idea of what it means to report the "news." It's the same old, same old.

For different versions of the same reason, both the bill and the newscast are in trouble. But don't expect this to change either Senator Kyl or Anchor Couric.

And don't lay odds on a President McCain, either.

For the same reason.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.