By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
It sounded like the kind of friendly interview that administration officials expected when they invited 42 mostly conservative radio hosts to broadcast yesterday from beneath a long, heated white tent on the president's doorstep.
"The American people, in my humble opinion, don't realize we're at war," Neal Boortz, an acerbic libertarian based in Atlanta, told presidential counselor Dan Bartlett. "How do you communicate to the American people that there is a grave threat that must be addressed?"
Moments after Bartlett moved down the rows of folding tables to the next interview, however, Boortz said during a break: "I've adopted the opinion that maybe I'd like to see the Republicans take it in the teeth in this election, lose the House and lick their wounds. They just haven't done enough to be rewarded with continued control in Washington."
For 15 years, the conservatives who dominate talk radio have served as shock troops for the GOP, bashing Democrats, hitting the hot buttons and rallying their listeners. Since the Republicans won back Congress in 1994, a feat in which Rush Limbaugh played a catalyzing role, through the disputed election of 2000 and President Bush's first term, the radio talkers have wielded a powerful megaphone for their ideological side.
But as Bartlett, Karl Rove, Tony Snow, Michael Chertoff and other top administration officials worked the tent during yesterday's day-long event, it became apparent that there are serious cracks in this once-solid wall of support.
"The corps of Bush supporters are just seething, angry and disappointed," said Jan Mickelson, a fixture in Des Moines radio. Iraq, he said, has become "ungovernable," voters are upset about "perceived corruption in the Republican Party," and "social conservatives feel like they've been used again." But in a point echoed by several of the hosts, Mickelson said that "immigration is the number one issue" fostering disgruntlement with the Republicans, because his listeners are "seeing the effects of lack of border control every single day."
Asked whether he wants the Democrats to win the midterm elections, Mickelson said: "I don't really give a rip. The conservatives would say, 'What's the worst that can happen? We're not getting anything we want now. We're getting nothing but frustration and ulcers.' " Charlie Sykes, a Milwaukee host, told Bartlett during an interview: "If the Republicans lose control of the House, they won't have anybody but themselves to blame."
Still, most of the conservative broadcasters are not rooting for a Democratic victory next month. Some say they are just reflecting the unease of their listeners. Others say they cannot abide the thought of a Democratic House or Senate.
"The Republicans certainly deserve to get spanked," said Steve Gill, a Nashville host. "The problem is, if you turn the Senate over to Hillary [Rodham Clinton] and Ted Kennedy, and Nancy Pelosi in the House, it's America that gets spanked."
Sykes said that "we've spent the last nine months being disappointed with the administration and being disillusioned." But now, he said, "people are getting more focused on the choice. . . . I don't think the Democrats have an alternative vision."
Administration officials have periodically blitzed the radio airwaves, where conservatives command big national or regional followings, as a way of circumventing the mainstream media. Progressive radio has made modest inroads in the past two years, but Air America, the fledgling liberal network, declared bankruptcy earlier this month.
Though a handful of liberals, such as Juan Williams of National Public Radio and Fox News, were allowed in the White House tent, others say they were shut out. Rachel Maddow, an Air America host, said the White House did not return her calls when she sought an invitation.
The talkathon enabled Rove, Bartlett and other officials to warn about the consequences of a Democratic takeover of Congress while being questioned in tones ranging from sympathetic to politely skeptical.
Martha Zoller, a host from Gainesville, Ga., said that "national security trumps everything," even though she does not like the administration's position on some domestic issues. "I don't think it does any good to say we're going to punish these guys by putting the other party in power, because it could be 10 to 15 years before we get conservatives back in power," she said.
The biggest star on the right yesterday was Sean Hannity, who is heard on 515 stations. He was granted interviews with Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, whom Hannity hailed as "a great American."
Even Hannity, who campaigns for GOP candidates, said he has disagreed with the White House on immigration and on the ill-fated Dubai ports deal, "and I think spending has been a little out of control." But he remains a fierce administration defender, calling the Democratic Party "pathetically weak" on defense and terrorism, and dismissing predictions that the House minority leader may soon move into the speaker's office.
"The Democrats and Nancy Pelosi picked out the drapes and carpet a little too early," Hannity said.