No Fox News host is as devoted to the GOP as Sean Hannity. Here's what his show tells us about the Republican race
As you’ve probably noticed, this has been a good week for Mitt Romney, who seems to be winning over the elite Republican donors who’d been trying to recruit Chris Christie into the race and who has regained the lead in national polls thanks to Rick Perry’s self-initiated free fall. But how good?
To answer that, I decided to check in on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show last night. As I’ve written before, I’m using what I call the “Hannity Test” to gauge Romney’s progress in the GOP race. The basic idea is that Romney, because of the party base’s deep suspicion of him, needs Republican opinion leaders to vouch for him, and to play along with the rationalizations he’s desperately trying to sell to GOP voters.
And when it comes to Republican opinion leaders, Hannity is pretty much the gold standard these days. While there are conservative voices who speak to larger flocks (Bill O’Reilly’s Fox show drawn more viewers than Hannity’s, just as Rush Limbaugh’s radio show draws more listeners), Hannity represents the optimal convergence of audience size and loyalty to Republican messaging. Rush and Bill will occasionally grant their own passions and peeves priority over the interests of the GOP, but as O’Reilly himself put it a few weeks ago, Hannity “has a Republican show, and Republicans should have a show.”
This makes him an excellent barometer: If Hannity begins using his platform to encourage his conservative viewers not to worry too much about “RomneyCare” and all of Mitt’s other past crimes against conservatism, it will be a strong indication of where the party’s elites want this process to go — and how they will persuade the party’s base to go there. Last night seemed like the perfect time to tune in. Christie had officially backed down the day before, Sarah Palin’s announcement had come hours earlier, and the reality that the GOP field really is set was finally setting in. Plus, Hannity’s guest was Senator Jim DeMint, who may be the most popular member of Congress with Republican base voters. How would these two Republican leaders, the party cheerleader and the Tea Party hero, assess the race now?
The segment began with the two men heaping praise on Palin. Hannity said her refusal to run is “probably a good decision for her family” because “she has been beaten up so badly all the time,” while DeMint asserted that the former half-term Alaska governor has “done as much to change the political landscape in America probably as much as anyone since Ronald Reagan.” (In its own way, this was a telling exchange: Palin has plenty of ardent fans on the right, but it’s also obvious that she’d become electoral poison since the 2008 campaign. Had she run, conservative opinion-shapers might have felt it necessary to ramp up their efforts to undermine her standing with the base. But by passing, she can retain her status on the right as the preeminent victim of left-wing cruelty and a Reagan-like leader.)
Then they moved on to the good stuff, and it became clear right away that Hannity was interested in playing the role of party unifier — in a way that’s very helpful to Romney.
“I’ve never believed the media narrative, which is this is a weak field,” he told DeMint, segueing into a question about whether DeMint agrees with the narrative that the GOP race is essentially “between more, quote, establishment people and Tea Party candidates.” DeMint replied that he didn’t. Which set Hannity up to say this:
But all of the candidates, they want to repeal Obama-care, all of them want lower taxes, all of them want more energy independence, all of them want less regulation, so it seems while there are distinctions, it seems that they are on the right conservative path. Do you agree with that?
DeMint indicated that he did, which prompted Hannity to issue another Romney-friendly statement-disguised-as-a-question:
Let me ask you this. Does it matter to you or how much does it impact you, for example, Governor Romney has to answer “RomneyCare,” Governor Perry has to answer his immigration policy, in-state tuition breaks for illegal immigrants. Herman Cain has to answer that he never held political office. Newt Gingrich has to answer for everything that happened when he was Speaker. Should that be the deciding issue, what happened in the past or what they are saying now?
DeMint said that the past matters a little, but that he’s more concerned with the future. Hannity then asked if he’d support every candidate in the field in the general election, and DeMint said he would. And that ended the interview.
Full disclosure: I’m not a regular Hannity viewer, so I can’t say if he’s been doing this sort of thing all along. But his entire approach here seemed noteworthy for how helpful it is to Romney. About 2 million people watch Hannity’s show each night, and it’s probably not a stretch to say that, functionally, most of them are Republicans. It’s probably also not a stretch to say that most or all of them are well aware of all of Romney’s ideological baggage. And here’s a trusted conservative voice asking leading questions to a trusted Tea Party leader that encourages viewers to regard Romney as a perfectly acceptable choice, one who may have some flaws “in the past” (just like the others!) but who is now as committed as any of the candidates to the conservative agenda. And, as DeMint even said, isn’t the future more important than the past?
This is exactly the sort of message that Romney needs Republican opinion leaders to be sending. The reluctance of the GOP base to suspend its doubts and get on board has kept him from breaking 25 percent in national polls, even as Perry’s support has melted down. But Perry is reeling now, and with Christie and Palin out, the prospect of a new candidate has been extinguished. There’s a real opportunity here for Romney, whose unspoken strategy has always rested on being the candidate of last resort for the GOP base. But he needs people whom the base trusts to tell them it’s OK. I’d say Hannity did that last night.
Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki More Steve Kornacki.
More Related Stories
- Developers evict historic women's shelter to build luxury hotel
- Guantánamo prisoner on hunger strike cries for help on Twitter
- 3 possible solutions to international tax avoidance
- “I just want the U.S. to send my father home”
- Army weapons engineer tied to white nationalist organizations
- Ted Cruz against the world
- David Vitter's hypocritical, punitive, horrible new amendment
- Louie Gohmert: Women should be forced to carry nonviable pregnancies to term
- Could hackers destroy the U.S. power grid?
- Democrats may be even worse than Republicans at regulating Wall Street
- Eric Holder versus journalism
- A progressive defense of drones
- There's no substitute for government disaster relief
- Holder signed off on search warrant for reporter
- Mississippi could begin prosecuting women for miscarriages
- Mike Judge: "Bowling for Columbine" made me pro-gun
- Closing Gitmo is not enough
- Murkowski: Palin too disengaged to run for Senate
- In IRS scandal, new GOP tactic is ignorance
- Code Pink activist berates Obama at national security speech
- Cuomo: "Shame on us" if New York City elects Weiner
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11