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Conservative Pundits Bring "Chaos Out Of Order" To Republican Base

Reported by Ellen - February 10, 2008 -

An interesting article in the February 18, 2008 issue of Newsweek addresses the discord between Senator John McCain and what the article describes as "many leaders of the conservative movement." While I think the article accurately and insightfully explores the overall tensions within the Republican base, it steps back from confronting the disconnect between the firebrand pundits such as Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh et al. and the rank and file Republican voters.

The article rightly considers Limbaugh and Hannity some of those "leaders of the conservative movement." But while they may be the chief mouthpieces for it, the crux of the matter, as I see it, is that there are plenty of other leaders and suddenly they don't want to cede the microphone to Rush and Sean. At the same time, voters have been striking out on their own, too. Each of Hannity's preferred candidates, Rudy Giuliani and now even second-choice Mitt Romney (Fred Thompson would have probably been Number Two had he outlasted Rudy), have been soundly rejected by voters. To add insult to the injury of McCain's ascent, upstart Mike Huckabee is going strong despite efforts to derail him and shove him out of the race.

As McCain draws closer to the GOP nomination, many leaders of the conservative movement have gone into convulsions. The biggest headline-grabber was ("Boombox" Ann) Coulter, who, true to form, seemed to set a new low for immoderation. But that didn't stop a slew of other prominent hard-right pundits, most on talk radio, from trying to outrant her. Rush Limbaugh, the most popular right-wing radio host, had been railing against McCain for years, and now declared that if he were nominated, "it's going to destroy the Republican Party." "He's just a lousy senator and a terrible Republican," said Hugh Hewitt, another syndicated talk-show host. "His votes the past seven to 10 years have been on the wrong side of the issues." The revolt went beyond talk radio's political shock jocks. James Dobson, one of the nation's most prominent evangelical Christian leaders, declared he could not "in good conscience" vote for McCain and endorsed Mike Huckabee—the first time Dobson had ever taken sides in a GOP primary.

Other right-wing pundits counterattacked in what has become a case of a party's base bringing chaos out of order. Bill Bennett, the onetime drug czar and conservative Washington pundit who now has his own show, asked his fellow radio hosts to tone things down. "Who is he to say that?" retorted one of them, Michael Savage, who sometimes rivals Coulter in controversy. "He's got a minuscule audience and no credibility. If he wants to start some internecine war, then here we go: he's a blowhard." The uncivil war also pulled in some stalwarts of the GOP "base," such as Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. "Rush is even ranting against me," Land tells NEWSWEEK. "I had the temerity to challenge the Great One in his all-knowing wisdom. Rush is underestimating the ability of Hillary or [Barack] Obama to unite conservatives around McCain. Rush says on air, 'Dr. Land, I'll tell you, I talk to 20 million people a day.' No he doesn't. He talks at 20 million people a day." (Limbaugh declined NEWSWEEK's interview request.) Does the Limbaughian view matter, really? The numbers suggest an apparent gap between the movement's leaders and rank-and-file conservatives. In the new NEWSWEEK Poll, McCain holds a marginal lead among conservatives (49 to 43 percent) in a showdown with Huckabee. Seventy-six percent of all GOP voters and 69 percent of self-described conservatives say they would be satisfied with McCain as the GOP nominee. However, on Saturday, the first test since McCain became the presumptive nominee, Huckabee trounced McCain in the Kansas caucus, winning around 60 percent of the vote.

...McCain may, in fact, have a better sense of America's shifting political mood than his detractors. "More and more of us are independents," says pollster John Zogby. "More people are not wedded to a party, a candidate or an ideology." Michael Dimock of the Pew Research Center says poll numbers show a small shift away from the GOP. About 34 percent of registered voters identified themselves as independents in 2007, up from about 30 percent in 2006, he says. That's the highest it's been since 1999, and almost all the slippage has been on the Republican side. Many in the Republican Party base, meanwhile, seem to believe it's still the same country it was a political generation ago—their country, in other words.

...Even most of McCain's worst critics believe things will calm down. "Samuel Johnson once said that the prospect of hanging concentrates the mind wonderfully," says Hugh Hewitt. "Hillary and Obama are right over the hill; this might not just be a loss in 2008 but an exile for 16 years."

...Richard Land says the GOP will, in the end, do what it does best: unite. "I find it hard to believe that there are many conservatives who, when push comes to shove and they contemplate what it would be to have Hillary Clinton with the added pain of Bubba back in the White House, or Obama, that they won't eventually rally behind whoever the Republican nominee is as long as they are pro-life," says Land. "I don't want to minimize the impact of Limbaugh. He has influence. But there is a limit to where anyone can lead conservatives [if it's] where they don't want to be led."

In other words, after beating their chests and probably muscling some concessions out of McCain, Hannity and Limbaugh will probably stop roaring and accept the fact that their bullyboy pulpits ain't what they used to be. Whether or not that's just a temporary glitch remains to be seen.