Fox News chief Roger Ailes is seen in the popular imagination as a genius in two ways: He promotes the conservative cause, and he creates amazing television. But in the last few years, it seems his first goal has become entangled with his second. Ailes asked David Petraeus to run for president in early 2011, The Washington Post's Bob Woodward reports today, and advised him through an intermediary to turn down an offer he expected from President Obama to be director of the CIA. Fox correspondent Kathleen McFarland told Petraeus at the end of a 90-minute interview in Afghanistan that Ailes might resign from Fox to run Petraeus's presidential campaign, and News Corp. head Rupert Murdoch would "bankroll" it. Petraeus took the CIA post instead. By pushing for Petraeus, it seems Ailes was after a candidate with more centrist appeal. Of course, Fox did no favors to the eventual Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, in his struggle to appeal to the center. It's all a fascinating look into how Ailes doesn't just reflect so much as try to shape the Republican Party. But the question remains: Does Fox's behind-the-scenes political power actually work?
Ailes was unhappy with the Republican presidential field when he made his overtures to Petraeus in 2011, as New York's Gabriel Sherman reported in May 2011. The Fox contributors who were likely candidates — Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin — weren't doing well in early polls. "And, for all his programming genius, he was more interested in a real narrative than a television narrative—he wanted to elect a president," Sherman reported. The guys he wanted wouldn't run, but Ailes didn't do a great job with the lesser candidates he had to work with. Maybe he couldn't. Or maybe it was just great television. Or maybe Ailes couldn't tell the difference anymore.
Take the behind-the-scene look at Fox's choreography of the Republican debate it hosted September 22, 2011, from The Daily Beast's Howard Kurtz. Kurtz tells of how moderator Chris Wallace practiced setting up a fight between Romney and Rick Perry over immigration with the question, "How do you feel about being criticized by some of your rivals as being too soft on illegal immigration? Then I go to Rick Santorum: is Perry too soft?" Kurtz reports:
"That’s going to get some fireworks going," said managing editor Bill Sammon, grinning.
When showtime arrived, producer Marty Ryan... called for a two-shot when Wallace invited Mitt Romney to criticize Perry's immigration stance, so the audience could watch both men's agitated expressions. But Ryan barked, "Let’s just be on Perry," as the Texas governor demanded to know whether Santorum had ever been to the Mexican border... Afterward, Ailes phoned a top lieutenant: "Tell the team we’ve been kicking ass in these debates."
The tone of this passage seems to admire Fox's genius in putting on a riveting debate show. But if Ailes really wanted to defeat Obama, this particular stagecraft may look foolish in hindsight. Romney won just 27 percent of the Latino vote, to Obama's 71 percent. A Latino Decisions poll showed that 54 percent of Latino voters would be less likely to vote for a candidate who would veto the Dream Act, which Romney pledged to do. In fact, the whole exchange did not make the Republican Party look very welcoming to Latinos. Wallace asked Romney: "What about Governor Perry's argument that it's better to get these kids an education and to get them jobs than to consign them just to being a burden on the state?" And Romney responded: "It's an argument I just can't follow." Giving in-state tuition to young illegal immigrants was a no-go, Romey said, because "that kind of magnet draws people into this country to get that education, to get the $100,000 break. It makes no sense." Later, Wallace asked Perry a question from the audience that included this line: "Are you going to exert an effort to stop the abuse of U.S. citizens by illegals?" Romney's campaign manager Matt Rhoades said Monday he regretted the position Romney took on immigration.
Which brings us to the Romney aftermath, even though we haven't had a public look inside the Ailes playbook concerning any events since last year. "Roger is worried about the future of the country," a Republican close to Ailes told New York in 2011. "He thinks the election of Obama is a disaster. He thinks Palin is an idiot... He helped boost her up. People like Sarah Palin haven’t elevated the conservative movement." So, despite the early 2011 shift toward a more moderate tone at Fox, the network still didn't quite capture the center. Potentially stronger candidates, like Petraeus and Chris Christie, did not take Ailes's advice to run for president. Maybe they were afraid they'd have to participate in a Fox debate? We don't yet know whom Ailes is trying to groom for 2016. Marco Rubio might help fix some of this year's problems for Republicans. Christie's future is less clear, given that Murdoch warned the governor he could take the blame for Obama's reelection during the response to Hurricane Sandy. One thing we do know is that Ailes will have his say, since he's signed on to run Fox through the end of 2016.