Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The radio beast bites back

Trent Lott uttered a revealing remark the other day. The Republican senator from Mississippi was venting to reporters about the stalled immigration reform bill, which has been under relentless attack from rank-and-file conservatives. Lott and other members of the GOP establishment have been pushing hard for the bill, at President Bush’s behest, and they’re clearly unhappy about all the grief they’ve been getting from the grassroots.

On talk radio, the foot soldiers of the increasing fragile GOP coalition – egged on by the talk show hosts – have been relentlessly assailing their own leaders as border wimps who are soft on illegal aliens; as Rush Limbaugh declared earlier this month, “The White House has split the Republican party on this…If this bill is killed, they’re going to have to go back to the drawing board.”

Anyway, Lott is ticked about taking all that heat. Here's his beef: “Talk radio is running America. We have to deal with that problem.”

Oh, so now it’s a “problem?” Lott and the GOP establishment had no complaints about talk radio when Limbaugh and his minions were working to propel them into power.

As early as 1992, Limbaugh was invited to sit with Marilyn Quayle in the vice president’s box at the GOP national convention. And in 1994, at the dawn of the conservative revolution, talk radio was instrumental in stoking pro-Republican sentiment and spreading the word about Newt Gingrich’s Contract for America. The Republican National Committee lined up 300 radio talk show interviews for the politicians who signed the Contract. After the GOP captured the House, Republicans even held a ceremony in Limbaugh’s honor, naming him “an honorary member of Congress” and lauding him as “the majority maker.” Grateful GOP freshman cited polls showing that frequent talk-show listeners had voted Republican in ’94 by a margin of 3-1.

Back then, the Republicans had no problem with the notion that Limbaugh (joined later by Bill O’Reilly, Neal Boortz, Michael Savage, Laura Ingraham, and many more) was “running America,” because, most of the time, they behaved like national precinct captains for the GOP, acting as liaisons between leadership and the masses.

Still, there were early signs that talk radio – what the radio consultants call “non-guested confrontation” - might be a double-edged sword for the GOP. Even as Newt was settling into his job in 1995, a Dallas host named David Gold warned publicly, “If they don’t perform, we’re likely to put the heat on them. There’ll be a lot of angry folks out there, and the talk-show hosts will be leading the charge.”

And, by 2002, it was clear that the talk radio titans were not content to simply function as Bush team cheerleaders. An instructive incident occurred in the spring of that year. The Bush administration suggested in a report to the United Nations that global warming might actually be a real man-made phenomenon – and Limbaugh jumped all over it.

Limbaugh said on his Monday show that “these predictions are basically apocalyptic doom and gloom based on raw emotion.” Then he charged that Bush had become “George W. Algore.” Sure enough, within 24 hours, Bush made it clear that his own administration had been wrong; as a news report stated, “President Bush appeared to distance himself yesterday from a report by his administration that says human activities are mostly to blame for recent trends in global warming…”

But that skirmish was tame, compared to what’s happening now. Now we have radio host Michael Savage assailing Bush as the “culprit” who is coddling illegal immigrants, which is why, in Savage’s words, it’s up to the grassroots to “derail this train of treason.”

It’s clear today, in the wake of talk radio anger about immigration reform, that the GOP leadership has failed to recognize a fundamental truth about their ostensible allies: First and foremost, the hosts and their followers are instinctively anti-establishment. Talk radio is a forum for the aggrieved; stoking emotions and firing darts at the establishment (regardless of whether it is liberal or conservative) is considered good radio.

The GOP leaders have belatedly discovered that talk radio is a beast that must be incessantly fed. And now that they’re being chewed up and spit out, now that they’re griping about how the beast is “running America” at their expense, I feel it's appropriate to paraphrase the Bible and simply observe that, in politics as in life, you reap what you sow.