Republicans Lash Back at Talk Radio's Criticism
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
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And I'm Robert Siegel.
Some Republicans are finding themselves in an unusual place - on the receiving end of the ire of conservative talk radio. As Senate Republican leaders try to shore up their party's votes on the immigration bill, some talk show hosts are leading the charge against it.
NPR's Mara Liasson has this story.
MARA LIASSON: If the immigration bill does go down in flames this week, conservative talk radio will get a big share of the credit. Talk radio once functioned as a reliable megaphone for President Bush and the Republicans, but not on this issue.
(Soundbite of recorded talk radio shows)
Mr. MICHAEL SAVAGE (Conservative Talk Radio Host): Send them your e-mails, say, no amnesty. We will deport you from office.
Ms. LAURA INGRAHAM (Talk Show Host, Political Commentator): I don't care how you dress it up. It's amnesty.
Mr. RUSH LIMBAUGH (Host, "The Rush Limbaugh Show"): This is a battle between Washington and the people now.
LIASSON: That was Michael Savage, Laura Ingraham and Rush Limbaugh. And they aren't just attacking the legislation. They've been engaged in open warfare with the bill's Republican supporters in Washington.
Earlier this month, Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott vented his frustration at the people he had considered core supporters.
Senator TRENT LOTT (Republican, Mississippi; Senate Minority Whip): I thought the United States is a place where you're supposed to exhibit courage and strength and leadership, and not be pushed around by the vicissitudes of Rush Limbaugh.
LIASSON: And Lott went even further when he told the New York Times, quote, "talk radio is running America. We have to deal with that problem." The reaction was swift.
Talk radio hosts organized a demonstration at Lott's Mississippi office and on the air, they gave Lott the kind of tongue-lashing they usually reserve for liberals.
Here's Laura Ingram again.
Ms. INGRAM: Trent Lott thinks talk radio is the problem? You should be embarrassed, embarrassed to call yourself a conservative in that kind of comment. Talk radio has done more for conservatism than Trent Lott could ever do.
LIASSON: By last weekend, Lott sounded contrite when he appeared on Fox News Sunday.
Sen. LOTT: The onus is not on them. It's on us to do a better job of communicating what we're trying to do. And I just want to make, you know, look, I've been befriended by talk radio many times and I will support their right to tell their side of the story, right, left or the middle forever.
LIASSON: Republican activist Grover Norquist works hard to keep all members of the conservative coalition on the same page, and he admits that relying on a medium and a set of messengers that are essentially uncontrollable has built in pitfalls.
Mr. GROVER NORQUIST (Conservative Activist): They can drive an agenda that isn't where the movement needs to be or even the leadership in the case of Bush is trying to get to.
LIASSON: And that's exactly what talk radio has done on immigration, the issue that's caused one of the deepest ruptures in the conservative movement. Norquist blames the White House.
Mr. NORQUIST: The Bush administration has not done a good job of feeding, caring of talk radio show hosts. So whatever talk radio show hosts talk often -their off on immigration. Why? Because they haven't been giving anything else to talk about.
Talk radio is out, making fun of Hispanics and talking about how exciting (unintelligible) would be. And you're really looking at 20 to 50 radio talk show hosts that are of the right that don't necessarily have political judgment, or even use their pulpit to move legislation. They could change the world on stuff.
LIASSON: Michael Harrison is the publisher of Talkers magazine. He says talk radio is simply reverting to its populist roots.
Mr. MICHAEL HARRISON (Publisher, Talkers Magazine): It's only been a recent phenomenon actually that talk show hosts have been so vehemently attached and supportive of political candidates and politicians in office. But what's happened with the immigration bill, we have a schism between populism and partisanship. Of course, the Republicans are frustrated about it because they're not used to that.
LIASSON: And the rupture isn't confined to immigration, which Harrison says was just the tipping point. Conservatives and conservative talk radio hosts have been unhappy with the president and the Republicans over other issues, including federal spending, the No Child Left Behind bill, even the war in Iraq.
Mr. HARRISON: And then we also have to remember that talk radio is a commercial show business medium. And as the talk show hosts are seeing the popularity of the president plummet, they're concerned about their own reputations and their own credibility.
LIASSON: Sometimes, the bottom line overrides partisan loyalty. Add that to an emotional issue like immigration and you've got a recipe for extreme disunity.
Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.
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