What with their decisive loss in the presidential election and the party's distinct minority status in the House and Senate, the Republicans could be forgiven for being pessimistic. Things do indeed look bad for their Grand Old Party.
Actually, it's even worse than they think.
Since the dawn of the 20th century, how many times has the incumbent party failed to succeed itself in the White House after one term? Once in 11 tries — in 1980, when Ronald Reagan took out Jimmy Carter. Statistically at least, the odds are not good for a Republican in 2012.
On top of that, counting Nov. 4, 2008, the Republicans have now failed to win the popular vote in four of the past five presidential elections. And in the fifth, they barely got past Sen. John Kerry. So despite appearances (owing to Washington's high neocon profile), it's actually been 20 years since the GOP was a dominant force in presidential politics.
There are plenty of theories circulating about how the GOP got itself into this mess, but one prime suspect clearly isn't getting its due — conservative talk radio.
The partisans will howl in protest, but while certainly not the only culprit, the relentless stream of invective from the right side of the dial has undeniably been a major contributor to the GOP's demise. It's no coincidence that the Republican eclipse began just when conservative talk radio found its audience.
Rush Limbaugh's show was syndicated in 1988. It's been a steady climb toward the top of the ratings for him and his imitators ever since, but pretty much downhill for the party they all support. Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and the others are enormously successful media performers, and they may have single-handedly rescued AM radio from financial oblivion over the past two decades.
But while wildly popular with their devotees, these partisan bloviators are enormously unpopular with the electorate as a whole. Limbaugh, for example, has about a two-to-one unfavorable rating nationally, according to a Rasmussen poll.
What's more, these figures are all rabble-rousers — high-intensity, "hot" performers whose appeal is based on energizing their base. That's all well and good for radio — it works, after all. But it's becoming increasingly apparent that it's a terrible way to structure the energy of a mainstream political movement that seeks to win more than 50 percent of the national vote.
The pet politician of many of these talk-show hosts may be Ronald Reagan. But Reagan, himself a radio performer, had exactly the opposite media persona. He was genial, low-key, calm and measured. He was a political version of the pre-Kennedy-era radio and television host Arthur Godfrey, whose folksy, homespun style would be an on-air anachronism today.
Both Reagan and Godfrey, of course, grew up in a different media age. With far fewer outlets, the key back then was to attract a mass audience — just as a presidential candidate should.
Today, in a media universe of thousands of choices, the key to economic success is to find your intense minority and play to it for all it's worth. But divisiveness is as fatal to a mass political movement as it is profitable in radio.
One can see this tension being played out even now. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin energizes the talk-radio base and is already being pushed as the inevitable next GOP leader. But Palin — like most talk-radio champions — is enormously divisive. Good for ratings; bad for politics.
The Republicans do have a Reagan/Godfrey-like figure right in their midst. Aside from President-elect Barack Obama, of course, the biggest political success story of 2008 was former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who emerged from absolutely nowhere, with no money, to become a national figure. He is quite conservative but virtually alone in his party. He speaks the language of economic populism in an amiable way that reassures voters.
The key to a Republican revival will be whether they head in the direction of Huckabee and the stylistic mainstream embodied by Reagan, or in the discordant direction of Palin. The economic imperatives of talk radio will push them toward Palin. But unless the Republicans learn how to preach to the masses and not the choir, they're going to remain in the proverbial wilderness for a very long time.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Boston Phoenix.