Sometimes when I watch cable news, I find myself imagining that the job interview process for talking heads includes a portion in which candidates are asked to perform their best pantomimes of shock, outrage, and bemusement. Dana Loesch, the conservative pundit who was hired this February as CNN's Tea Party voice, has a virtuosic range of ways to express shock/outrage/bemusement, along with Winona Ryder-esque good looks and a knack for sound-bite-ready salvos.
Considering all that, Loesch's move out in front of the camera almost seems an inevitable addition to her other gigs: hosting a talk radio program in St. Louis and editing Andrew Breitbart's Big Journalism website, where she helped break the Weinergate scandal. And yet CNN is also a bit of an odd fit: Big Journalism's mission is "to hold the mainstream media's feet to the fire." CNN is part of that mainstream by pretty much every definition, and so there were howls of sellout! from the Tea Party faithful when she inked the deal. Loesch herself has said acerbic things about the network in the past, calling it among other things "the biggest bunch of idiot blockheads" and slamming its "blatant disregard for objectivity."
But here's the thing about Loesch: Casual acerbity of this sort is her M.O.—as is moving between seemingly disparate worlds. She might at 31 be a fast-rising conservative media star, but not so long ago she was a mommy blogger, and not so long before that, a self-described liberal feminist who met her husband-to-be at a punk show. Having dropped out of college, she started a family at 21, then opted to stay home, where she found herself suffocated with guilt and "Linda Hirshman-type stuff." Meanwhile, she was in the midst of a political conversion that she says began with the Monica Lewinsky affair and was fully cemented on 9/11. She began blogging about politics anonymously, and also started her popular Mamalogues blog, which led to a column by the same name in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Occasional radio appearances in turn led to her own show, and national gigs followed. She co-founded the St. Louis Tea Party in 2009; ever since, she's been a hybrid of activist and commentator.
It's little wonder that Loesch ended up working for Breitbart, the former Matt Drudge underling turned conservative new-media kingpin who loves nothing more than manufacturing (see ACORN) or stoking (see Weinergate) a liberal scandal. Loesch has herself used new media to spearhead a couple of high-profile, Breitbart-style takedowns, like "Dump Dede," a blog that sought to prevent New York State "RINO" Dede Scozzafava from winning a seat in the House of Representatives in the midterm elections. When Scozzafava subsequently withdrew from the race, it became a major bragging point for Loesch, who still highlights it in her Big Journalism bio. More recently, she stirred up rage against Wonkette after a blog post tastelessly mocked Trig Palin; when advertisers withdrew, the post was eventually pulled.
Loesch's main weapon in the Wonkette campaign was Twitter, where she regularly gets into dustups. Consider the prolific, score-settling tweets she lobbed this week at lefties like Joan Walsh and Eric Boehlert who she claimed had implied she and Breitbart had done more to create the Weinergate scandal than just publish the photos: She loads up her posts with @s and hashtags and retweets, the social media equivalent of getting down in the mud and making it a whole lot harder for the person you want to talk to (or at) to ignore you. She almost can't imagine activism without Twitter, in fact. (Here is Loesch on Phyllis Schlafly, the only person she'll cop to being intimidated by: "She was able to do monumental things without social media.")
Her admiration for Schlafly notwithstanding, Loesch's ultimate compliment is to compare a woman to Designing Women's Julia Sugarbaker, an outspoken character who was also memorably a liberal feminist. In talking to me, she compared her mom to Sugarbaker; with other reporters, she's used the same comparison for Mary Matalin, whom she greatly admires. It's no stretch to imagine that Loesch may even fancy herself a Julia Sugarbaker type: elegantly coiffed and quick to speak, with opinions that never strike a middle ground.
That Loesch finds her cultural references just as readily on the left as the right goes a long way toward explaining her appeal as a media personality. In a manner reminiscent of Ann Coulter before her, she gets attention, and gets away with some of her more bombastic statements, because they're wrapped up in an unlikely package, one that Republican consultants in a windowless room somewhere have surely labeled as "young and hip." She checks many of the same boxes as Sarah Palin—spotty college education, bootstrapping career, willingness to play up her femininity and motherhood—only without the office-holding ambitions and strident anti-intellectualism. It's a persona that stands in stark opposition to the perceived old white maleness of conservatism, even as it is studded with plenty of Red State totems. Loesch owns guns and home schools her children; she still loves heavy metal, but expresses great affection for bluegrass, too.
Loesch's ease in both worlds, and her frequent emphasis on her conversion from liberal to conservative, makes her something of a type: a Woman Who Saw the Light. Consider the narrative of Michele Bachmann's Democratic upbringing (from which she was saved, she tells us, by reading a Gore Vidal novel); or fellow talk-radio star Tammy Bruce, another former lefty feminist; or Star Parker, a welfare opponent who was herself formerly a liberal on the dole; or, with the reverse trajectory, Arianna Huffington. There's nothing like the fervor of a convert, and fervor translates handily into a certain kind of media stardom these days.
Like Coulter, you're never quite sure what Loesch believes and what's meant to provoke, but of the two women, she is, on the whole, the far more sincere one. She says she considers herself a Tea Party spokeswoman—a sort of missionary to the lamestream media, if you will—not a polemicist. At least, that's how she justifies her deal with the devil: "What battle has ever been won by staying in camp and talking to your fellow soldier?" she asks. "It's liberty evangelism." And the joy of arguing on cable gets her martial metaphors flowing. "You're there to hunt bear," Loesch says. "[Cable news] is the new gladiatorial match."
Consider one such bout against two hoary old symbols of the party establishments, on Anderson Cooper's show during the April budget battle. Loesch glows expressively between the pallor of Democratic war horse Paul Begala and the incipient rosacea of old GOP hand David Gergen, each of whom waits quietly for his turn, confident in the weightiness of his years of experience and expertise. When they do speak, it is mostly to call out Loesch's tap-dancing around the issues, but she deftly sidesteps their attempts to get her to grapple with meaningful budget cuts. When she insists that Planned Parenthood funding is fiscally significant because "over time it adds up" Gergen throws his hands in the air. Begala sadly, futilely shakes his head as she shifts blame away from the Tea Party for having focused only on tiny slivers of the budget.
Surely anyone judging the arguments on their merits would say that either Begala or Gergen had won the debate. But not so fast: The quick, charmingly aggressive Loesch was by far the most memorable of the three. Her competitors didn't win the debate, because this wasn't a debate. Loesch was hunting bear, and Begala and Gergen lumbered straight into her traps.
Correction, June 8, 2011: This article originally misspelled Phyllis Schlafly's name.
Correction, June 9, 2011: This article originally said that Joan Walsh and Eric Boehlert implied that Loesch and Breitbart did more to create the Weinergate scandal than just publishing photos. Loesch made this charge, but Boehlert and Walsh have disputed it.