Romney vs. the GOP’s Cultural Warfare Wing

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Steve Nesius / Reuters

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney talks to supporters during a campaign rally in St. Petersburg, Florida, May 16, 2012.

Fox News is slightly less predictable than its reputation–there’s Shep Smith, and Bill O’Reilly can surprise–but nothing on television resembles authoritarian state-run media quite like Hannity. Nothing about Sean Hannity’s nightly show is either fair or balanced; much of it feels like the product of the Republican National Committee, and some of it feels like what the RNC would produce if its staff got drunk and made a parody version of their day’s message.

Hence the a rare moment last night, where Hannity criticized his party’s presidential nominee. His complaint? That Mitt Romney had repudiated a super PAC plan to attack Barack Obama for his association with Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Hannity has long been obsessed with Wright, who represents to him the idea that Obama is a closet black nationalist radical, and last night devoted a large chunk of his show to the topic, including audio of interviews conducted with Wright by the discredited political biographer Edward Klein.

A bitter-sounding Wright spoke at some length with Klein about Obama, mostly with nothing new to add, except for a hard-to-believe charge that in 2008 Obama’s friend Eric Whitaker offered him $150,000 to stop speaking publicly lest he do more damage to Obama. Somewhat comically, Wright’s grousing about Obama included the charge that he has changed in office, particularly when it comes to his views about the military and foreign policy, and that the pre-White House Obama  wouldn’t have sent soldiers to execute Osama bin Laden; Hannity may not have appreciated that this bit was severely undermining his critique of the President as a wild-eyed pacifist/leftist.

The larger point in all this goofiness is that the 2012 campaign will run on dual tracks. Mitt Romney wants to talk about nothing but the economy, and will do his best to avoid the paranoid fumes rising from the right’s fever swamp. But the right wing media, whose birther wing is currently in a frenzy over a ludicrous artifact that distorts Obama’s past, will carry on with talk of Kenya and Rev. Wright and race. Some of that talk will bleed into the mainstream media, especially when conservative voters thrust it into the spotlight as they did in the fall of 2008, probably to John McCain’s detriment.

So I suspect this incident won’t turn out to be the last time that Romney–probably sincerely–will have to repudiate, disavow and distance himself from such talk. He may want this election to revolve around the economy, but important figure in his party–including Hannity, and Limbaugh, and their compatriots–are simply too interested Obama’s race and identity to get on board with that game plan. (Those political hosts are also entertainers who know that conspiracy theories are better for ratings than economic policy.) However much Romney may try to wish those themes away, they’ll be bubbling around the margins of his campaign until the votes are cast on November.