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Talk Radio, Immigration Reform and ‘Running America’

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

(The Senate Judiciary Committee sent a version of a comprehensive immigration reform to the full Senate on Tuesday. In 2007, talk radio was credit/blamed for helping to defeat similar legislation. The following is an excerpt from The Right Frequency: The Story of the Talk Radio Giants Who Shook Up the Political and Media Establishment, available for a special deal on Amazon through Memorial Day. Click here to purchase.)


When Senate Republicans sent out their talking points to friendly media sources on the bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform proposal Hugh Hewitt read them on the air before calling them “four pages of crap.”

It was the beginning of a near united front by talk radio show hosts that led to one of the most famous triumphs and prompting a Republican—not some RINO, but the former conservative Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi—to gripe “talk radio is running America.”

Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, Mark Levin and others kept the drumbeat up against the immigration legislation supported by Republican President George W. Bush, the eventual Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain and the Democrat- controlled Congress to wipeout the legislation. Calling the measure amnesty, a characterization supporters called untrue, the hosts encouraged their listeners to melt the Senate phone lines. Listeners obliged.

It would be the second time the measure would go down. The last time, in late 2005, a Republican controlled Senate voted for the measure to grant a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States. The McCain-Kennedy pathway would allow those who entered the country illegally to pay a fine, and go to the back of the line to go through a procedure for legalization. The Republican-controlled House passed a tougher enforcement-first measure. A conference committee never reconciled the two approaches.


In 2007, it was different. Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, and Republicans—so it seemed—would have to be willing to accept compromise. The bill mostly resembled the 2005 pathway to-citizenship legislation, with a few tougher enforcement restrictions.

This time the bill was sponsored by Sens. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., Republican who opposed the previous bill. Bush was also on board, one answering the critics, “I’ll see you at the bill signing.”

But Limbaugh warned the legislation that could potentially add millions of new Democratic voters should be called “Destroy the Republican Party Act.” He said the passage of the legislation would lead to Democrats “getting a brand new electorate, reshaping it and being able to win election after election after election.”

This irked Republican National Committee Chairman Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida, who said Limbaugh “has emotion on his side, but I think I have logic on mine. Hispanics make up about 13 percent of our country and by 2020 will be closer to 20%. It is a demographic trend that one cannot overlook.”

Hannity interviewed McCain, then one of many GOP contenders, on his show, telling the Arizonan about the “groundswell of opposition” to this legislation among Republican voters. McCain, quipped, “So I am supposed to gauge my behavior on whether I am booed or not? Please, Sean.”

However fewer and fewer Republicans seemed willing to accept the proposal. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., sought first to use procedural rules to cut off debate and move to a vote.


When that didn’t work, he sought to use a procedure sometimes nicknamed “clay pigeon,” or splitting a bill into several pieces. It was typically a procedure for stalling legislation, this time Democrats sought to salvage at least some of the bill.

But the tide, thanks largely to talk radio, was too strong for Reid to salvage anything. The public was making itself clear and the bill died. The blowback against talk radio was tremendous, as much of establishment Washington viewed the hosts as demagogues and the senators who shrunk from a fight as cowards.

One very prominent host that did not follow the amnesty line on talk radio was Michael Medved, who thought the move was potentially destructive.

“I think talk radio played a crucial role in defeating immigration reform in 2007,” Medved said in an interview. “Had that immigration reform been passed in some moderated form, some adjusted form, we would be a better country today and I think it’s very possible John McCain would have won the [2008 presidential] election. John McCain won white votes by 12 points, almost identical to what Bush won in 2004. However, among Latinos, McCain—who had always gotten Latino votes as a candidate in Arizona—Bush got 44 percent of the Latino vote in 2004, McCain got 30 percent in 2008.”

Trent Lott—among the GOP senators who refused to bow to public pressure on the bill—was irate, and was quoted as saying, “Talk radio is running America. We have to deal with that problem.”

“Deal with that problem” sounded an awful lot like he wanted a legislative fix. The return of the Fairness Doctrine was already a concern since Democrats recaptured Congress. Was Lott joining the cause? He was quick to say no.


“I’m not trying to resurrect the law called the Fairness Doctrine. I’ve done hundreds of talk radio programs, from local stations in Mississippi to the big ones, like Hannity. Hardly a week goes by when I’m not doing some talk radio program talking about an issue,” Lott said. “But, I don’t think the Senate should just react to talk radio or any other form of media. The Senate needs to be much more proactive, to lead the discussion and lead the nation. That’s what Senators are supposed to do—take on issues, no matter how hard, and produce legislation. We’re not doing that to the extent we should.”

Despite concerns about the Fairness Doctrine, most hosts loved the assertion by Lott, even if they really snickered at the absurdity.

The cover of the Limbaugh Letter featured a picture of Rush with the words “I Run America.”

Michael Savage took it serious enough. “We have more power than the U.S. Senate and they know it and they’re fuming,” Savage said on his show. “We’re going to have government snitches listening to shows. And what are they going to do, push a button and then wheel someone into the studio and give their viewpoint?”

Part-time radio host Dean Barnett, who would fill in for Hugh Hewitt occasionally, wrote in a January 2008 piece in The Weekly Standard, that it is actually America that runs talk radio.

“We’re factors in the conversation, but we don’t lead it. The interests and concerns of the people lead the conversation. It’s truly a bottom-up phenomenon,” Barnett wrote. “Conservatives didn’t need talk radio hosts to discover their antipathy towards the McCain/Kennedy reform. I pinch-hit for Hewitt several times while that debate raged. Whenever I tried to steer the discussion to anything other than the immigration dispute (merely to disrupt the monotony of talking about the same issue for three hours a day for days on end), the phone lines would die. Most of the listeners who called in would hang up; those who decided to dial in anyway did so to discuss immigration, even though I had changed the subject. I’m pretty sure all conservative talk show hosts found the same thing. The month of June 2007 was all-immigration-all-the-time on the air. The listeners had made up their minds on the merits of McCain/Kennedy before a single talk show host had said a word.”


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