By Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
It was a casual shot across the bow, a shrugged comment last week from Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.): Advocates of an immigration overhaul would have to "deal" with talk-radio hosts who he said don't know what is in the legislation but want to kill it nonetheless.
The return fire to that passing comment has been withering, as some of the nation's most prominent conservative talkers turn on a man they once defended adamantly.
Michael Savage, who hosts the conservative program "The Savage Nation," accused Lott of dispatching Nazi storm troopers against his critics. A National Review blogger tagged the senator "Vacant Lott." Conservative talker Hugh Hewitt warned that Lott would only "further motivate the base because to the reality of a bad bill and past insults is now added a genuine note of dislike" for those conservatives.
"When I hear a United States senator say that what I do for a living is a 'problem' that the government has to 'deal with,' you can interpret it any number of ways," Rush Limbaugh said on the air. "He's either saying, 'Well, we're going to have to come up with our own ways to overcome them' or 'We're going to just have to wipe them out.' "
"When they're with you, it's great," Lott said yesterday. "When they're not, it's not good."
Democrats have long borne the scars of such tongue-whippings from the AM dial. But now conservative Republicans are feeling the lash as well.
"I've had my phones jammed for three weeks. Yesterday I had three people answering them continuously all day," Lott said. "To think that you're going to intimidate a senator or any senator into voting one way or the other by gorging your phones with phone calls -- most of whom don't even know where Gulfport, Mississippi, is -- is not an effective tactic. But it's their right to do that."
But to some of the hosts, such as Hewitt, it's not about intimidation. It's about pride. Lott's comments were not just inflammatory, Hewitt said, they were insulting.
To The Washington Post, Lott had said, "I'm sure senators on both sides of the aisle are being pounded by these talk-radio people who don't even know what's in the bill." To the New York Times, he had offered: "Talk radio is running America. We have to deal with that problem."
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), one of the immigration bill's chief architects, suggested on Sunday that opponents of the deal border on being racist.
"We've been down this road before -- 'no Catholics,' 'no Jews,' 'Irish need not apply,' " Graham said on ABC's "This Week."
Those quotes suggest that Republicans favorably disposed to the immigration bill are more interested in calling its opponents names than debating the bill's merits, said Hewitt, who declared he has read the entire immigration bill.
"They are not giving sophisticated answers to sophisticated, penetrating criticisms," Hewitt said. "They're attempting to silence the debate."
But the conservative response to Lott may be symptomatic of a broader disenchantment with the Republican Party, said Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of Talkers magazine, which chronicles talk radio. The immigration debate is a bellwether, he said, but conservative criticism is brewing on issues from education to spending to Iraq. Last week the magazine granted its annual Freedom of Speech Award to Savage for his criticism of President Bush, the first time Harrison can remember honoring a talk show host for speaking out against someone of his own political persuasion.
Republican politicians "assumed they owned conservative talk radio," Harrison said. "But support of conservatives by talk radio was only being borrowed as long as conservatives felt that Republicans served the conservative movement."
Republicans backing the immigration bill were mindful yesterday of Lott's experience -- and contrite. Asked about the radio response, Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) joked, "I ain't saying a thing" before adding: "When we want to be on talk radio, we find a way to get on, because we like their views and we like their audience. So when we don't like their message, we ought to be willing to take the pain."
"I think that for many of them, this is the first exposure they have had to an activist response to bad legislation," Hewitt said. "They hear from 1 percent of every population on every issue. Whether it's Social Security reform, whether it's immigration, whether it's the war, they're used to hearing from discrete but very, very activist groups. The immigration bill has swept into the debate literally hundreds of thousands of people who have never picked up the phone."
But to the bill's opponents, it's not about grinning and bearing it, as Martinez is doing. It's about accepting the judgment of the GOP's base.
"Talk radio was sort of the watchdog on this," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). "Who else was watching out? Who else was reading the bill?"
"A decent respect for our constituents means when they have very serious problems with an important piece of legislation, perhaps we should back off," he said.