I've been trying to answer this question: does the Republican Party have a "leader"? Surely it's not Michael Steele, the loose-lipped chairman of the RNC. Not Mitch McConnell, the funereal Kentuckian who heads the Senate's rejectionist GOP minority. Not Sen. John McCain; he's too busy watching his own right flank back home in Arizona. And certainly not the Bushes, elder and younger, hunkered down in Texas. As for the 2012 wannabes, none gets more than a fifth of the GOP vote in the early polls.
But I finally found my answer while I was watching Fox News Channel. Last Wednesday, the other news outlets were engaged in wall-to-wall, on-the-ground coverage of the horrific earthquake in Haiti. FNC, meanwhile, featured an hourlong Glenn Beck sit-down with Sarah Palin, Fox's newest "analyst," and wall-to-wall, on-the-ground coverage of the U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts, where a Republican, Scott Brown, seemed to be closing in fast on what was once Ted Kennedy's seat. "All eyes are on the Senate race in Massachusetts!" said Sean Hannity, who did his best to make it seem as though he believed it.
Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum—which is why God created Roger Ailes. The president of Fox News is, by default, the closest thing there is to a kingmaker in Anti-Obama America. And that, in turn, makes him the de facto leader of the GOP. In a relentless (and spectacularly successful) hunt for cable ratings, Ailes has given invaluable publicity to the tea partiers, furnished tryout platforms to GOP candidates, and trained a fire hose of populist anger at the president and his allies in Congress. While Beltway Republicans wring their hands or write their tracts, Ailes has worked the countryside, using his feel for Main Street resentment to attract and give voice to this year's angriest—and most powerful—voter-viewers: those who hate the Feds, the Fed, and the Ivy League. It was Ailes who put the "party" in the tea parties by giving them a round-the-clock national stage. Next month Fox will have priority access to the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville.
The irony is that Ailes is not in the game to wield political power per se. He doesn't talk to the RNC and he can't stand most elected politicians, even the ones he puts on the air. "It's beneath him to get into politics," says a longtime friend. In his universe, the Washington equation is reversed: political power begets profits, not the other way around. But if politics is a nonstop talk show, being the head booker means you are the boss. If Fox feels Nixonian in its resentments and its sometimes shaky fealty to the facts, well, that is what Jon Stewart is for.
On the topic of Ailes, I know whereof I speak. I've known him since he was media adviser to George H.W. Bush's campaign in 1988. We kept in touch after he went into cable. He counseled me on the yakking biz a decade ago. I'm an MSNBC analyst, so consider this an assessment penned by a frenemy.
Ailes likes to think of himself as the sworn enemy of intellectual and artistic swells, but he is more complicated than that. Yes, he's from a mill town in northern Ohio, and his dad was a foreman at a Packard plant. Yes, he is a graduate of Ohio University—not, he proudly notes, of the Columbia Journalism School. But he has produced musicals on Broadway and has a better feel for the cultural scene than he likes to let on. You'd think he would be repelled by Manhattan, but he used to own a king-of-the-world apartment in midtown. Last year he was reportedly paid $23 million. The populist-resentment business is lucrative.
Which is not to say that it isn't real. It is, which is why he hired Palin. He's essentially giving her a second tryout in the Bigs, while simultaneously using her to generate colossal ratings. Palin supporters were congratulating themselves last week, but she had better enjoy the ride while she can. Her marathon session with Beck was a chiffon of ignorance, hairstyling, egotism, and shtik. Palin had a moment of panic when Beck asked her, in the friendliest of ways, to name her favorite Founding Father. "All of them," she said nervously. Prompted by Beck, she settled on George Washington.
The ratings were huge, but I'm not sure that the exposure did her any good. As of now, there are no plans for a Fox show of her own. Unlike her last boss, Ailes doesn't give anyone a coveted spot on his ticket without a long, thorough vetting.
Howard Fineman is also the author of The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country.