Commentary Magazine


GOP Doesn’t Live in Scarborough Country

I’ve been resisting even noticing this story line for a while, but now that both The Atlantic and Politico have assisted the trial presidential balloon being floated by Joe Scarborough, it’s time to deflate it and then never mention it again. Scarborough is the former Republican congressman from Florida who has parlayed good looks and a caustic sense of humor into a lucrative gig on MSNBC, and has been telling people he wants back into politics. After trying for years to get anyone to take the idea seriously some in the media have finally picked up on the hints and are giving some lip service to the notion that the star of Morning Joe is a legitimate long shot GOP candidate for president in 2016.

Scarborough was in New Hampshire last weekend to appear at the Northeast Republican Leadership Conference and to sell his latest book. Organizers hoped to inspire a little extra publicity by putting his name on the ballot for a straw presidential poll. But MSNBC demanded that their employee’s name be taken off so Scarborough got the benefit of the buzz from the story without having to actually suffer the indignity of finishing last behind actual prospective candidates like Rand Paul, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, and Rick Santorum and another media-driven personality in the form of Dr. Ben Carson.

But despite the boost the Scarborough-for-president story got from this, anyone who indulges the Morning Joe host’s fantasy for more than a second has taken leave of their senses. While Scarborough is what passes for a Republican, nay, even a conservative, on some days at MSNBC, even he has to know that the overwhelming majority of Republican primary and caucus voters, be they Tea Partiers or establishment types, don’t live in Scarborough country.

The pun is, of course, on the name of his old MSNBC show before the network tilted to the far left and, in an inspired piece of casting, he was paired with the insufferable Mika Brzezinski to anchor the network’s morning entertainment. It’s a good watch and even those who can’t stand the liberal tilt of almost all its talking heads can appreciate why it is has become successful. As Mollie Ball notes, its “air of chummy, Acela-corridor knowingness has made it destination viewing for the political class.”

Last year, the New York Times’s Alessandra Stanley captured the tone of the show better than any of its critics or admirers:

At its best, that rambunctious, fast-talking cable talk show, anchored by Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, can sound like a screwball comedy set in a Washington think tank. On a bad day it turns into a C-Span edition of Eugene O’Neill: Mother is tuned out and the children sip their soup quietly to avoid arousing their choleric father. Mr. Scarborough can be funny and charming, but he occasionally goes on bullying, self-aggrandizing tears that are uninterrupted by a clique of yeasayers that includes Mike Barnicle, Donny Deutsch and Harold Ford Jr. Ms. Brzezinski acts as the foil, but she too often preens for the camera as if it were a mirror.

In the rarified air of Morning Joe, Scarborough’s pontifications are occasional reality checks for liberals, such as his rant about Senate Democrats’ all-night global warming fest that I noted last week. But anyone who thinks seriously about the Republican electorate must also take into account the fact that Scarborough has also spent a great deal of his time on the show not only flaying Republicans for their actual sins of overspending and damaging government shutdowns but also for stands on which they have the support of most conservatives. If he were to run for office again, Scarborough would have a very difficult time explaining to Republicans why he spent most of 2013 ranting about gun control when he was the hero of Vice President Joe Biden and other liberals for spending endless segments of Morning Joe flailing away at the National Rifle Association. No sale.

Scarborough says that if Chris Christie and Jeb Bush don’t run, he could become the establishment favorite in 2016. I don’t think that’s realistic as a host of other potential GOP candidates, including Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, make more sense to represent that constituency. But Scarborough has spent so much time hanging with liberals that he seems to be unaware that his over-the-top anti-NRA rants would make him the liberal RINO, not the establishment guy, in any GOP primary. Which is to say, he has zero chance.

Scarborough’s main selling point these days is that Republicans need to be pragmatic and focused on winning elections rather than engaged in Ted Cruz-style suicide attacks. There is a case to be made for such a point of view, but only if it comes in a package of solid conservative beliefs–and anyone who watches Morning Joe knows that Scarborough has long since become a liberal’s idea of a conservative rather than an actual one. In 2012 we saw exactly what Republicans thought of such a candidate when Jon Huntsman crashed and burned in one of the most embarrassing and costly presidential campaign failures of recent memory, and the former Utah governor was far more plausible than Scarborough, a point that William Kristol recently made on the show.

Ball says that so many former presidential candidates have transitioned from politics to the media that it was inevitable that one should try to move in the opposite direction. But Morning Joe fans shouldn’t worry about the host leaving the show to try his luck in 2016. Joe’s presidential boomlet is a figment of his imagination and his publisher’s business plan. The gap between the MSNBC/Acela axis and Republican primary voters is too great for even as successful a media personality as Scarborough to bridge.

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