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Right-Wing Wins Take Wind Out of Talk-Show Hosts

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 17, 2004; Page C01

Their guy just won reelection by 3.5 million votes. Their party strengthened its majority in the House, in the Senate and in statehouses, with the Supreme Court probably soon to follow. "Moral values" -- their kind of stuff -- are très chic.

This could be a disaster for the nation's right-wing talk-show hosts.

Rush Limbaugh (Jim Sulley - MediaLink/WirePix via AP)

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Election Day was a triumph for conservatism, but it may have been a mixed blessing for the people who yak about it on TV and radio. Conservative talk, by far the most popular kind on the airwaves, has always traded on an undercurrent of grievance, a sense of being the underdog against the implacable, oppressive forces of liberal "elitism." The farther conservatives were from power, the better the Us-vs.-Them model worked. The right-wing media matured and prospered under Democrat Bill Clinton, whose two terms in office were a gift that kept on giving to the Limbaughs, G. Gordons, Savages and lesser lights of the electronic right.

But now? Now the big pinatas of the left -- the Kerrys, Michael Moore, gay marriage -- have all been smited. Now the underdog is the overlord of . . . well, just about everything.

What's a right-wing diss jockey supposed to rant about now?

After a little post-election gloating -- Rush Limbaugh yesterday was still making fun of Kerry supporters who said they needed psychological counseling to deal with the election result -- the outlines of the New Outrage have been emerging in the past few days.

The new targets could be fellow Republicans, and the talk-show hosts who love them.

Talk hosts say they are perfectly willing to eat their own on a variety of intraparty issues: judicial and Cabinet appointments, the federal budget deficit, immigration reform. Hard as it is to imagine, President Bush himself may even take some heat from his partisan talking heads.

"I've said if Republicans start acting like Democrats, we can find ourselves in the minority," radio talkmistress Laura Ingraham says. Ingraham, whose show is heard on 290 stations nationwide (including WTNT-AM locally), is spending time lately bashing Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a moderate Republican who enraged conservatives by suggesting that Bush would have trouble getting antiabortion judges confirmed by the Senate. Ingraham has publicly questioned, beyond the abortion issue, Specter's judgment and credentials to chair the Judiciary Committee.

"This is the time when all the fun begins," she says. "I think it's liberating to be in this post-election period. . . . The talk-radio audience can only live off Teresa Heinz Kerry for so long. It becomes rote. The campaign is fun and exciting, but now we're going to move on to new meat."

Ingraham has no existential dread of being a conservative talk host in an age of conservative dominance. Republicans, after all, aren't monolithic or infallible, she says. And if all else fails (or bores) in Washington, she says there are always "cultural" issues to dissect (where have you gone, Scott Peterson?).

"I don't wake up every day thinking who are my targets going to be," Ingraham says. "We look for compelling stories, narratives and humor. It's not about a target but about having a philosophy and trying to highlight it."

Besides, the old reliables aren't going away completely. There's Hollywood, Hillary Clinton, the "liberal" media, and liberals generally, even in their ever-diminishing state. On his Fox News Channel program on Monday, for example, Sean Hannity went after Charles Schumer, the newly appointed chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. In view of the appointment, Hannity said, the New York lawmaker will "just have to go on obstructing judicial nominees in his spare time."

But Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman from Florida who now hosts MSNBC's nightly "Scarborough Country," says the challenge for conservative hosts will be to prove "that we're more than just the Pravda of the right." He adds, "I think that's going to be difficult for some people. I honestly don't know what Sean Hannity is going to be able to talk about. If you've been reading off the Republican National Committee's talking points like he has for the past four years, it's going to be hard to be critical of the status quo."

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