June/July/August 2014 The Last Interesting Centrist

Can Michael Smerconish save cable from the tyranny of partisanship?

By Simon van Zuylen-Wood

Credit: cnn.com

On April 2, the Supreme Court threw out a thirty-eight-year-old provision of campaign finance law, clearing the way for individuals to make an unlimited number of political donations. Depending on which partisan broadcast outlet you get your news from, the McCutcheon v. FEC decision either rescued the First Amendment from the suffocating vice grip of government regulation or murdered democracy as we know it. “They’re not into freedom of speech,” said Rush Limbaugh of the ruling’s liberal critics. “They want to rig every game.” “This is all about freedom?” thundered Al Sharpton on MSNBC. “Freedom for who? The 1 percent?” Sitting in a soundproof glass studio the day after the ruling, radio personality Michael Smerconish has a different take. Rather than pronounce the ruling all good or all bad, he wrestles with its subtler implications.

“I think that money is out of control in politics—in particular, the secretive nature of the giving,” says the fifty-two-year-old Smerconish, who shaves his head and sports a close-cropped Wolf Blitzer-style beard. “That’s abhorrent. I think that’s the biggest problem of all: you ought to at least be able to know who’s funding candidates. But there are some potential upsides to what happened in the Court yesterday.” In particular, he notes, with fewer restrictions on traditional campaign giving, “money might get re-channeled away from Super PAC outlets,” which don’t have to disclose their donors, “and instead put in the hands of candidates and parties,” which do have to disclose their donors. In that sense, he argues, the Supreme Court may have struck an unlikely blow for transparency.

Growing excited, a tangy Philly accent betraying his practiced elocution, Smerconish then proposes an entirely new campaign finance system “that says no corporate giving, no Super PAC, no apparatus like that to shield where the money is coming from.” Instead, individuals would be permitted to give unlimited amounts to whomever they wished. “Would that be a better system than the one we have now? Call now, toll-free. Tell me what you think.”

He opens up the phone lines. “Sean from Tucson” thinks Smerconish is soft-peddling the destructiveness of the decision, and makes the case for publicly funded elections. Smerconish initially disagrees with him—wouldn’t that system favor incumbents?—before reconsidering, midcourse. “Does social media level the playing field?” he asks aloud. “Can you on a viral level spur interest in a candidate, and might that compensate for the incumbent’s upper hand? So maybe I need to rethink what that’s all about.”

In the world of contemporary political talk, Michael Smerconish occupies a unique space. A longtime conservative host out of Philadelphia, he eventually grew alienated from the Tea Party, telling the Washington Post that his AM audience was “too old, too white, too male, and too angry, just like the Republican Party.” So last year he moved his nationally syndicated radio show to the POTUS Channel, an insidery but nonpartisan politics station on the SiriusXM Satellite Radio network. There, for three hours a day, he’s been experimenting with a new kind of talk format aimed at independent-minded listeners, which touts its nonpartisan brand with gravelly voiced promos like “Angry is over” and “Where moderate is not mushy and civil is not sissy.”

Of course, there are plenty of other centrists and independents in public life. Nearly all of them, however, are bland and mind-numbingly tedious. Among them: the business-friendly Third Way zombies who pine for Supreme Leader Bloomberg; the Fox News Democrats-in-Name-Only who crow on endlessly about the national debt; the ex-politicians who grow misty-eyed recalling the halcyon days when everybody was “reaching across the aisle.”

Smerconish is more interesting than these folks thanks largely to his style of banter, which might be described as suburban populist. He is civil and substantive, like a public radio host, but with an amped-up energy level you’re not going to hear from, say, Tom Ashbrook or Diane Rehm. Where National Public Radio tends toward the high-minded, the Michael Smerconish Program is more water cooler—a segment on, say, the situation in the Ukraine might be followed by a discussion about a kid who peed in a public reservoir, or a student at Duke who claims to be a porn star. Smerconish shares his opinions as shamelessly as Bill O’Reilly or Ed Schultz. Yet his views are ideologically unpredictable—sometimes he cuts left, sometimes right—and he puts them forth provisionally, as jumping-off points for discussion, inviting his guests and listeners to challenge him.

Smerconish thinks, in other words, the way most people—at least most people who aren’t hard-core political partisans—actually think about complex issues. They listen. They weigh. They consider. They change their minds when a better argument comes along. They think people who let their opinions be dictated by prefabricated ideologies are idiots. And yet, as any cable viewer or AM listener well knows, such idiocy continues to dominate the world of political talk.

All of which brings us to a question: Can Michael Smerconish’s style of thoughtful, moderate political talk make it in the big leagues of broadcasting, beyond the niche market of satellite radio? We may soon find out. For the past four years, Smerconish has served as Chris Matthews’s regular fill-in host on Hardball. The exposure was good enough that, this spring, CNN gave him his own Saturday-morning show before trying him out as a possible replacement for the departed Piers Morgan, who floundered in the network’s coveted 9 p.m. slot.

It’s easy to see why the network might think Smerconish, with his knack for ideological inclusivity, could offer precisely what it’s been lacking. Fox and MSNBC dominate cable talk ratings in large part because they give their unabashedly partisan audiences unabashedly partisan programming. CNN, by contrast, has stubbornly stuck to its old-school mission of providing nonpartisan news and analysis. That serves the network well when there are big breaking stories to report. But on days that lack the inherent drama of a big news event, it languishes. So far, nothing it’s tried has worked—certainly not the stuffed-suit Beltway consensus spewers and tiresome spectacles like Crossfire that suffuse its broadcasts.

But the instinct to stick to nonpartisan programming isn’t necessarily wrong. There is a vast, untapped middle that would seem to be exactly in CNN’s wheelhouse. A January Gallup survey found that a record 42 percent of Americans identify as Independent rather than Democrat or Republican, a constituency that would seem to be turned off by extremist politics and their cable shoutfest equivalents. So why can’t CNN—or anyone else—capture these viewers?

One reason is that while a large chunk of them identify as moderates, moderates are in fact a quite diverse constituency. As the pollster Stefan Hankin has noted, the states with the highest percentage of moderates are Rhode Island and Alaska. But in Rhode Island, they’re socially liberal and fiscally conservative, and they lean Democratic, while in Alaska, they’re libertarian and lean Republican. The point is: Nobody—politician, pundit, satirist—has found a way to appeal to all of them. And so, much of the country just watches SportsCenter or Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and ignores political talk altogether.

Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a writer for Philadelphia Magazine.


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