[Michael] Steele is representative of a fascinating but little noted development on the right: the rise of buckrakers who are exploiting the party’s anarchic confusion and divisions to cash in for their own private gain. In this cause, Steele is emulating no one if not Sarah Palin, whose hunger for celebrity and money outstrips even his own.
I think it was either Daniel Larison or Andrew Sullivan last year who noted that conservative pundits’ power and profit tends to go up whenever the Republican Party does worse. If you control the White House and/or Congress, you don’t really need a radio host or non-office-holding former candidate as a spokesman. But buckraking isn’t limited to the right — as Ezra Klein, Glenn Greenwald, and Wonkette point out, it’s kind of hard to see Harold Ford’s Senate run in NY as anything but an attempt at self-promotion. (Ford probably won’t win the primary nomination, but his place as a guy who gets interviewed on cable news is safe for years.)
In fact, “buckraker” is probably best reserved for pseudo-journalists, i.e., pundits who act as political hacks — but for their own benefit, over and above that of their media network or political party. That (as Word Wizard points out) is closer to the origin of the term, both as a variation on “muckraker” and its (probable) coinage by Jacob Weisberg in The New Republic, all the way back in 1986, in an essay called “The buckrakers: Washington journalism enters a new era”:
[M]ark February 1985 as the start of the next era. That was when Patrick J. Buchanan went to work at the White House and his financial disclosure statement revealed, to widespread astonishment and envy, that he had made $400,000 as a journalist in 1984. This included $60,000 for his syndicated column, $25,000 for his weekly appearance on ‘The McLaughlin Group,’ $94,000 for Cable News Network’s ‘Crossfire,’ $81,000 for a radio show, and more than $135,000 for 37 speeches. Welcome to the era of the buckraker.
But Buchanan was always a marginal figure, a good interview but someone who was always at the outside of the Republican party and national politics. The fact that Michael Steele has essentially refashioned the national chairmanship of his party — which (national political figures like Howard Dean aside) used to be a pretty low-profile, behind-the-scenes, support job — into a me-out-front full-time media position seems significant — Steele doesn’t have an incentive to promote the party at the expense of himself.
Serving as party chair is always a short-term gig. As Buchanan and now Palin and Ford have shown, buckraking is forever.