The column has been tweeted more than 2,400 times. More than 100,000 people have clicked a tiny, omnipresent “f” and shared it on Facebook. The Washington Post’s comment widget, groaning under the pressure, stopped counting the number of new scrawls at 5,000. The title of this op-ed blockbuster, by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, is “Let’s Just Say It: The Republicans Are the Problem.” You see why it was popular.
Ornstein is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Mann is at the Brookings Institution. The two think tanks, both embedded near Washington, D.C.’s Dupont circle, can be described, roughly, as right-wing and left-wing. And so ThinkProgress gave the “conservative American Enterprise Institute” partial credit for the column, as did the Detroit News, as did the Vermont Times Argus. Newser slapped on the headline “Conservative Think Tank: Mess is the GOP’s Fault.” That was the story—not that Republicans were criticized, but that they were criticized by a conservative. That meant that it mattered.
But some of the Facebook-sharers were played for simps. Ornstein doesn’t pretend to be a conservative movement, Republican scholar. “He’s as conservative a Democrat as there’s ever been,” suggests his friend David Frum. Back when Al Franken had a radio show, Ornstein would come on to talk politics and find areas of agreement. Franken would play him in with a Bruce Springsteen song for which he’d written new lyrics: Noooooorm in the U.S.A.! Nooooooorm in the U.S.A.!
“Ornstein’s an intellectual,” says Citizens United president David Bossie. “He's a guy who's never been part of the conservative movement, and he's never been part of the conservative establishment or organizations on any policy.”
So he’s not a conservative, but people want him to play one on TV. There is an Apostate Factor in punditry, a multiplying effect powerful enough to turn any opinion into a newsy opinion. The schematic:
Step 1: Become associated with a party or a movement.
Step 2: Criticize said party or movement.
Step 3: Repeat.
How long can you keep it up? I’ve wondered about this, and I don’t think it’s about timing. It’s about scale. You can dine out on your old party affiliation indefinitely if you keep it classy—sticking to books, op-eds, official-looking chin-stroking. If you make a giant production out of your apostasy, your credit burns right up.
Let’s point our magnifying glasses at three examples.
Zell Miller: Effective apostasy period: 2003-04. Miller, a former governor of Georgia, took over a Senate seat after its Republican occupant died of a cerebral hemorrhage.* Starting in 2003, after his state’s Democrats were obliterated, Miller was ready and willing to add his official Democratic voice to whatever Republican attack needed the oomph. The 9/11 commission was “unpatriotic”; John Kerry would disassemble America’s military defenses cog-by-cog. “Kerry would let Paris decide when America needs defending!” howled Miller at the 2004 Republican National Convention. In three years, he wrote two books on the premise that no sane person who cared for America’s soul could ever vote for Democrats.
But he became a has-been, fast. His mistake: For the media’s purposes, if you endorse the other party’s candidate, you’ve joined the other party. Miller’s retirement gig as a Fox News contributor petered out as the Democrats took over Congress in 2006.