Republicans and Fox News are moving to purge the controversial political creatures they created.
Both were damaged badly in 2012 by loud, partisan voices that stoked the base -- but that scared the hell out of many voters. Now, the GOP, with its dismal image, and Fox News, with its depressed ratings in January, are scrambling to dim those voices. To wit:
Fox ousted contributors Sarah Palin and Dick Morris, two of the most obnoxiously partisan figures on the network's air.
Karl Rove, himself sidelined by Fox after the election, has helped start a new super PAC, the Conservative Victory Fund, designed to keep controversial conservatives like Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) from winning Senate primaries.
Senate GOP leaders created what amounts to a buddy system with their caucus's most popular tea party members, Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, to get their help in taming anti-establishment conservatives.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has been running around the country warning anyone who will listen that Republicans must quit being the "stupid party" that nominates nutty candidates.
"The fact that we lost a winnable election has caused Republicans to take this very, very seriously," Jindal told us in an interview. "I don't think it's just a marketing change. I don't think it's just cosmetic changes. It is going to require some serious changes, not in principles, but in the way we talk and act."
One high-profile Republican strategist, who refused to be named in order to avoid inflaming the very segments of the party he wants to silence, said there is a deliberate effort by party leaders to "marginalize the cranks, haters and bigots -- there's a lot of underbrush that has to be cleaned out."
For establishment Republicans, this is all about survival, after two straight elections that saw extremely conservative candidates blow Senate races Republicans should have won. For Fox, it's about credibility: The cable network, while still easily the top-ranked in news, has seen its ratings dip since the election, in part, conservatives tell us, because a lot of Republicans felt duped by the coverage.
Roger Ailes, the channel's chairman and CEO, has a politician's sense of his base -- Fox viewers. He revolutionized television by tapping into Republican disgust and anger with the mainstream media. This has worked brilliantly for him. He created not only the most-watched cable news channel in the country -- he created political celebrities, several of whom dominated Republican politics in the 2012 cycle.
At various points, many of those celebrities, all with Fox contracts, were at or near the top of Republican presidential polls: Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Palin and Mike Huckabee. But by the end of campaign, Fox could seem like an alternate universe, one in which the Benghazi killings were the most important story in America and Mitt Romney, contrary to public polls and Fox's own polls, was on his way to winning the election. While ratings were strong, the network had a bumpy election night, capped off by Rove taking to its air to argue that everyone else was premature in calling Ohio for President Barack Obama. Rove, who recently had his Fox contract renewed, saw his appearances scaled back after the scene.
Ailes has aggressively, and shrewdly, toned things down post-election. Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly were among the first conservatives to call for a rethinking of the GOP's opposition to comprehensive immigration reform. And then Palin and Morris got the boot, sending an unmistakable message about the new expectations for the channel's contributors.
This has coincided with the political efforts led by Rove, who took to Fox's air Tuesday night to defend his campaign to beat back controversial conservatives such as King. On Fox, Rove said it's crazy to think the GOP cannot do better than Todd Akin, the party's Senate candidate in Missouri, and Richard Mourdock, his counterpart in Indiana, both of whom lost after blurting out their views about rape in the heat of the campaign. "We need to do better if we hope to take over" the Senate, Rove said.
Still, it's a lot easier to talk about change -- and shake up the cast of characters -- than to authentically change. A number of conservatives think Rove and establishment bullying are the problem with the GOP -- not bombastic personalities on Fox or in isolated campaigns.
Steve Deace, a prominent conservative talk-radio host in Iowa, took to POLITICO's pages to eviscerate Rove and his effort, calling him the "demolition man."
"Rove's prominent and annoying display on Fox News as the Republican ruling class' mouthpiece and his new effort aimed at defeating the Tea Party makes him the point man for destroying the very conservative movement that made him a national name in politics in the first place," Deace wrote.
So a political colonoscopy is going on before our eyes. Republican after Republican told us the party dodged a bullet with Mitt Romney's loss: If he had squeaked in, this vital reboot would have been delayed four or eight years.
A number of Republican groups, the Republican National Committee included, are putting the final touches on an autopsy of what went wrong. They are reaching similar, and predictable, conclusions: Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans, single women and young people are turned off by the modern GOP. These problems, they say, while real and pressing, are solvable with policies and targeted outreach, over time.
But a senior Republican operative said the party has two huge, unresolved impediments to the top leaders' grand plans: "suicide conservatives, who would rather lose elections than win seats with moderates," and the "many groups on the hard right that depend on direct mail fundraising that requires a high degree of audacity, and borderline shrillness."
Throw in a third obstacle: loudmouth personalities and candidates who, once created, are hard to control.
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