September 27, 2013
Thanks to the Digital Revolution, a Conservative Uprising Can Rally Its Troops
By JEREMY W. PETERS
WASHINGTON — Ask conservatives what went wrong for them the last time the government shut down, and many of them will bring up the cover of The Daily News of New York from Nov. 16, 1995.
Under the block-lettered headline “Cry Baby,” it showed a cartoon of Newt Gingrich, then speaker of the Republican-led House, in tears, clutching a bottle and wearing nothing but a cloth diaper.
Back then, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel was a year from its debut, Andrew Breitbart was a lowly assistant at E! Online, and The Drudge Report was an obscure gossip and news digest sent by e-mail — to the lucky few who had e-mail.
But today, a fervent group of conservatives — bloggers, pundits, activists and even members of Congress — is harnessing the power of the Internet, determined to tell the story of the current budget showdown on its terms.
Even if their version of events does not help change popular perceptions enough to give Republicans the upper hand when it comes to public opinion, their efforts are, at a minimum, helping to stoke energy on the right that is invigorating the party’s base.
“This time the energy is being fueled by a lot of forces that did not exist back then,” said Christopher Ruddy, chief executive of Newsmax, the conservative magazine, Web site and publisher. Its “ObamaCare Survival Guide,” a New York Times best seller, has sold a half-million copies, he said.
“There’s this new conservative media constellation, and that’s playing into this,” he said.
In this telling of current events, the antagonists are the Republicans standing in the way of Senator Ted Cruz, the Texan who has crusaded this week to kill President Obama’s health care overhaul. Republican Party divisions are presented as a superficial distraction from the real issue at hand: the ruin the economy will suffer once the law goes into effect. And the only repercussion for the party worth discussing is not how much political damage the Republicans will sustain, but how the Tea Party giant has been awakened in this fight.
Democrats usually get more credit for their social media expertise, thanks in large part to the successful tactics of Mr. Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns. But conservatives’ use of blogs and, increasingly, Twitter to drive their messages and spur online protests have been a major factor in Mr. Cruz’s movement.
Few Republicans have been more savvy about the media game than Mr. Cruz, who hit the phones almost immediately after his 21-hour marathon speech ended Wednesday. One of his first calls was to Rush Limbaugh’s radio program. Glenn Beck would come later, as would a conference call with conservative bloggers. There were two Fox News interviews.
On Thursday afternoon, as he and Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, were planning their next steps, Mr. Cruz joined a group of demonstrators in an unrelated cause who knelt in prayer outside the White House. A reporter from the Christian Broadcast Network blogged about it.
Mr. Cruz and Mr. Lee’s strategy was to force a procedural delay that would push a pivotal vote on the budget bill back to Friday so they could give their online movement as much time as possible to pressure their Senate colleagues. This led to an angry confrontation on the Senate floor on Thursday after Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee accused Mr. Cruz of turning the vote into a publicity stunt.
“My friends have sent e-mails around the world and turned this into a show,” complained Mr. Corker, who said his office had been inundated with calls.
With the help of groups like FreedomWorks and the Tea Party Patriots, Mr. Cruz and Mr. Lee urged their followers to besiege Senate Republicans like Mr. Corker, John McCain of Arizona and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, with phone calls and Twitter messages. “Melt their mention,” was the way FreedomWorks characterized its online assault — a reference to the “mention” feature on Twitter where users can inform one another what has been posted about them.
Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, said she owned a PalmPilot — then a cutting-edge device — during the 1995-96 shutdowns. In those days, she said, conservatives felt more disconnected from one another, their voices more muffled.
Now, “people don’t feel like they’re alone,” she said. “You feel like you’ve got allies with you and your voice isn’t just in the wilderness.”
A case in point was how the Corker-Cruz exchange was reported in the conservative news media. By the decorous standards of the Senate, it was a heated confrontation, but hardly a knockout. Yet RedState, the blog and newsletter published by the conservative activist and pundit Erick Erickson, declared Mr. Cruz the uncontested winner, saying in essence that he had devoured Mr. Corker’s liver, Hannibal Lecter-style. “I think I saw some fava beans and a fine Chianti on Cruz’s desk after he was finished,” Mr. Erickson wrote.
In many news accounts, Mr. Cruz has been portrayed as the aggressor, battling his party’s leaders as they urged him to stand down from what has ended up being a losing battle, just as they had warned.
But an article on Breitbart
.com, one of the most popular conservative Web sites, succinctly captured the competing story line: “McCain Decries the G.O.P. Civil War He Started.”
The senators who voted with Mr. Cruz to prevent the budget bill from moving forward were hailed as “heroes” in many comments posted online — a far different take from the more conventional reports that they were a rebellious bunch.
Many Republicans have accused Mr. Cruz and his allies of exploiting the raw emotions of conservatives on the political fringe. And it is impossible to know how long the enthusiasm for their campaign will last. On Friday, there were two lone Tea Party protesters near the steps that lead into the Senate chamber. One was waving a yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flag.
They were feeding off the week’s momentum, trying to summon the spirit that propelled the Tea Party to power in the House in 2010.
“This is what it feels like to take on Washington,” Mr. Lee said Friday in a speech from the Senate floor. “Those of you who’ve been involved in this effort should feel proud and energized.”