Political Hay

The House That Hannity Built

Sean Hannity takes on GOP wobblies. From Conservative Victory to conservative challenge.

By 11.16.10

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"Remember, George, this is no time to go wobbly."
--
Margaret Thatcher to George H.W. Bush,
August 3, 1990 on the eve of the Gulf War 

You might call it The House that Hannity Built.

That House. The soon-to-be Republican majority U.S. House of Representatives.

Yes, absolutely, there were a few others involved in this accomplishment. A few millions of others, to be precise. The men and women of the Tea Party, the grass roots, rank-and-file Americans who took the heat, who did the work, who organized, marched, rallied and knocked on doors and called and e-mailed their friends and neighbors. Needless to say, Speaker-to-be John Boehner and all manner of House Republicans and their teams glimpsed victory and worked hard for it.

But on January 3rd 2010 that victory was nowhere in sight. To the contrary, there were news stories out there that reported the National Republican Congressional Committee was struggling, and that "financial woes are dimming the GOP's bright prospects of making major gains in the House."

One month later, on February 3, the Washington Post ran this headline:

Sean Hannity to address Republican fundraiser

Fifty days later, the morning after the talk radio star and Fox commentator made his appearance at that fundraiser for the NRCC, the group was counting up a massive $8 million dollar cash infusion thrust at them by Hannity admirers who swarmed the Republican congressional dinner to hear Hannity's conservative message in person -- and donate to House GOP campaigns. Within days the money was being pumped into anemic campaigns across the country.

Result?

A 60-plus seat sweep in the House, abruptly ending Nancy Pelosi's tenure as Speaker and sending some of the most powerful of the chamber's Democrats into retirement.

Now, a bare two weeks after the conservative landslide, the author of Conservative Victory: Defeating Obama's Radical Agenda, the man who dedicated two years worth of his life to engineering what he called the "Stop Obama/Pelosi Express" with spectacular success is, to the fury of his critics, not about to go wobbly now.

Washington, the city with a pungent reputation for changing outsiders into go-along-insiders, is being flooded with enthusiastic, Hannitized House Republicans -- many of them freshly elected after appearing on either or both of Hannity's highly-rated radio and television shows.

Meanwhile, Hannity himself is already moving the next train out of the station. Steaming down the political tracks to the 2012 conservative future.

The Stop Obama Express is now rolling. And, to the delight of many conservatives, Hannity has no stops planned at stations named "Earmarks," "Backtrack," "Tweak" or "Forget We Said This."

THE FIRST RESULTS of Hannity's 2010 efforts were visible immediately. As the new class of House Republicans gathered in Washington, Speaker-to-be Boehner came out for an end to earmarks, the grossly exploited Congressional privilege that had infamously led to the Alaska "Bridge to Nowhere." Having repeatedly called for an end to earmarks, Hannity had been typically blunt about the subject in his book, which was released a week after his appearance at the NRCC fundraiser:

This is the key question I keep returning to as I review the recent history of the GOP. For some reason, it seems, the Republican leaders of today lack the discipline and courage to stick to their principles once in power. As we confront the prospect of reclaiming power in the next two elections (2010 and 2012) it is more urgent than ever that, when we do, we remember to govern as conservatives. We must not allow the enticements or inertia of Washington to seduce us into betraying our principles…. When Republican Party leaders forget who they are -- when they lose the courage of their convictions, abandon their principles, dilute their policy positions in that quixotic quest to be more moderate or to appeal to independents -- history tells us that they lose the confidence of their constituents. The public wants principled leadership, not lukewarm uncertainty and vacillation.

It is lost on few that Hannity called it exactly right. Not only did the GOP win the most substantive GOP House landslide in decades, independents came flocking to conservative candidates. Boehner, who had never personally taken earmarks, had seemed to balk on the subject when asked by Fox Sunday host Chris Wallace in a September appearance. Post-election, any doubts Boehner may have had have vanished, his new members insisting the practice be stopped.

The fault line here between Establishment Republicans in both the House and Senate is significant, and Hannity's role in supporting the latest chapter in what was once called the Reagan Revolution is considerable. 

Effectively, Sean Hannity's programs (along with those of Mark Levin) became much sought-after stops for GOP candidates who were symbolic of the anti-Establishment or anti-Ruling Class sentiment that has not only swept the country this year but began taking over the Republican Party itself -- way back in 1964. The increasingly visible struggle between the GOP Senate Establishment and South Carolina's Jim DeMint, a frequent Hannity guest, is if nothing else simply the latest version of the showdown that has erupted over the years between Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller, Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford, Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Jack Kemp and Bush 41 and so on.

No less than Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell appeared to be emerging as the leading symbol of the GOP Establishment, seemingly deaf as a post to both the symbolism of earmarks and the fact that rank-and-file conservatives understand all too well earmarks are used by Establishment Senate and House members for logrolling purposes. As our friends at the Wall Street Journal editorial board noted only yesterday:

It's true that earmarks make up only 2% to 3% of all federal spending, but that spending is what greases the political skids for passing trillion-dollar-plus budget bills. Members get what they want in return for voting "aye" on what the Administration and Congressional leaders want.

And here at The American Spectator, Quin Hillyer yesterday penned a scathing take-down of McConnell's seeming obliviousness to the symbolism of the earmark issue. By mid-afternoon, McConnell was on the Senate floor, to his credit, as Hillyer later wrote, reversing himself.

But the issue of the Establishment GOP versus rank-and-file conservatives has raised its head this year, no more so then with Hannity, who has steadfastly stuck by conservatism in the resolute style Margaret Thatcher so admired in her friend Ronald Reagan. If others were having trouble following Thatcher's now legendary advice to the first President Bush about not going "wobbly" on a matter of principle, Hannity was not.

And he was plainly unafraid to call out those he felt had gone wobbly.

For a time during the 2010 campaign, the conduct of the National Republican Senatorial Committee was such that it sparked considerable heated conversation among a number of prominent conservatives. Delaware GOP Senate nominee Christine O'Donnell openly accused the NRSC of not only being not supportive but deliberately going out of its way to be unhelpful to her campaign, a statement she made on Hannity's radio show. One prominent GOP conservative Senate candidate -- now a Senate winner -- was heard to remark grimly that some of his future GOP Senate colleagues "are part of the problem."

The perceived undermining of South Carolina's GOP Senator Jim DeMint has particularly infuriated Hannity. Understandably so. The DeMint attacks are merely a symptom of the Establishment's easy willingness to have their fellow wobblies take shots at anyone and everyone seen as any kind of a threat to the cozy wobbly-world that is Inside-the-Beltway. Preferably anonymously.

This is the kind of behavior that led to the GOP defeats in 2006 and has had Hannity warning before the election that a GOP win puts the party on "probation." 

A CLASSIC EXAMPLE of this behavior involved Hannity himself during the fall campaign. While he was a champion to House Republicans, it was no secret that Hannity had gone out of his way to lend a hand to O'Donnell -- the conservative underdog in the GOP Delaware Senate primary who upended the state's hidebound Establishment by defeating liberal GOP Rep. Mike Castle. Yet while he had done the same for any number of conservative House and Senate candidates, the O'Donnell episode came to symbolize the difference between rank-and-file conservatives and the GOP Washington Establishment wobblies.

O'Donnell's campaign was under attack within minutes -- literally -- of her considerable primary night victory, from a source identified on-air by Fox News correspondent Carl Cameron as being tied to the NRSC. There was an immediate uproar. So much so that by the next morning the NRSC chairman, Texas Senator John Cornyn, had seemingly moved to soothe troubled waters by assuring that money from the NRSC -- a committee which has as its sole job raising and spending money to elect Republican Senators -- was en route to O'Donnell.

By October, while Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele had rallied to her side along with others (among them Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney and Lamar Alexander), it was plain the O'Donnell camp believed the NRSC was balking at helping her as much as it could. A meeting occurred between candidate O'Donnell and Cornyn, which by one account from a source in the room did not go well.

A report of the meeting, deliberately unflattering to O'Donnell and Hannity, made its way to Howard Fineman of the left-wing Huffington Post. O'Donnell was pictured as saying to Cornyn: "I've got Sean Hannity in my back pocket, and I can go on his show and raise money by attacking you guys." Fineman went on the decidedly not-conservative MSNBC's Keith Olbermann program and attributed the story to "top Republican strategists and officials"

The only problem? A source in the room for the meeting says this simply never happened. Period. O'Donnell did meet with Cornyn. She asked the NRSC for money simply to "undo" the damage they did to her during the Delaware primary.

The damage?

Among other things, the NRSC had made an unfortunate habit of siding with Establishment Republican wobblies in Senate primaries -- including O'Donnell's. NRSC Vice Chairman Senator Orrin Hatch endorsed Establishment wobbly Rep. Mike Castle in the Delaware race. Hatch had already gone out of his way to insist the conservative Pat Toomey was un-electable in Pennsylvania. "I don't think there is anybody in the world who believes he [Toomey] can get elected senator there," Hatch was quoted in Politico at the time onetime Republican Arlen Specter left the GOP for the Democrats because polls showed him losing a GOP primary to Toomey. Hatch was asked at the time if the NRSC would support Toomey in a potential GOP Senate primary between Toomey and someone else, presumably a wobbly. Said Hatch: "I don't think so," adding the GOP needed to look for "someone who can win there." There were other incidents of this kind. Perhaps most notoriously, the NRSC endorsed Florida wobbly Governor Charlie Crist over Marco Rubio and Kentucky GOP wobbly and Secretary of State Trey Grayson over Rand Paul.

Thus, in the course of the conversation O'Donnell did discuss the obvious -- that the support she had received from conservative talk radio stars Rush Limbaugh, Hannity and Mark Levin had in fact helped her to raise some $2 million. O'Donnell also said she appreciated conservative support and was thankful for it.

There can be no mistake when something like this happens.

While Cornyn has a reputation as a good man being pulled in different directions in his NRSC job, when sources identified as "top Republican strategists and officials" -- aka wobblies -- leak an untrue story about an anti-Establishment GOP candidate supposedly saying she has Hannity in her back pocket -- a laughable proclamation to be made by anybody who has ever dealt with the famously outspoken talk radio star -- there can only be one reason. The GOP Establishment wanted to take a swipe at Hannity at the same time they were busily sabotaging O'Donnell.

The feeling among many rank-and-file conservatives is palpable that Establishment Senators have little more than contempt for the Tea Partiers that Hannity has so visibly assisted. As this is written, Senator Lisa Murkowski (Write-In, AK) is in the news disparaging rival Sarah Palin's intellectual abilities. One can only marvel that if the Senator were as bright as she thinks she would have been re-nominated by her party in the first place. This kind of thinking illustrated by Murkowski is a wobbly sentiment strikingly reminiscent of the contempt Country Club or Rockefeller/Ford/Bush/Dole Republicans once held for Ronald Reagan and, in the House, Newt Gingrich or the late Jack Kemp.

None of this is lost on Hannity. Nor is it lost on him that it was Reagan who eventually triumphed -- the party's losses always seeming to come when there is an insistence on nominating so-called GOP "moderates" who either lose the White House or, if elected at the state level, quickly go about the business of continuing to build what Goldwater once derided as "the dime store New Deal."

The potential for a so-called moderation of conservative principles or going wobbly is seemingly always present within the modern GOP, a problem Hannity deals with at length both on his two shows and in Conservative Victory as well. "We must learn these lessons, and quit falling for the message that liberals want us to believe: that the only way for us to win is to moderate our positions."

The earmark question seems on its way to resolution, a victory for both Hannity and other conservatives who shared his view. But in truth this is only the beginning. Issues ranging from the Debt Commission to the Bush tax cuts to repealing ObamaCare (piecemeal or completely?) and on and on stretch out as far as the political eye can see.

IN EACH AND EVERY CASE what's at stake is not what so many people try to make of these discussions. In the end, none of this has to do with Sean Hannity -- as Hannity himself is always the first to say.

Notably, it was 46 years ago last month -- October 27, 1964 -- that Ronald Reagan electrified the conservative movement with his famous, nationally televised A Time for Choosing speech. (Video here and text here.) Said Reagan:

This is the issue of this election: Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.

A decade later, in a quote that is a Hannity favorite, Reagan would describe the choice Republicans faced this way:

Our people look for a cause to believe in…. a new and revitalized second party, raising a banner of no pastels, but bold colors, which make it unmistakably clear where we stand on all of the issues troubling the people. 

What's going on really in the battle between the GOP Establishment on those occasions when they take shots at a Sean Hannity is in fact the same battle that Reagan took on when he challenged the GOP Establishment wobblies of his day. This battle features Hannity, Limbaugh, Levin, DeMint, Sarah Palin and others in the role created by Ronald Reagan himself. Pitting them against an Establishment that, for reasons that are both inexplicable if seemingly inevitable, features those whose first instinct in any political fight facing conservatives is to move left -- rather than stand up on the right. Why? Because it's the socially acceptable thing to do in Washington, a town where liberals rule, setting the tone for what's socially and professionally acceptable. To wobble is to be accepted. To get the party invitations -- and the job offers.

This is typified in the Howard Fineman story at HuffPo. The fact that so-called "GOP insiders" -- professional consultants whose financial future is wrapped up in electing Establishment candidates and then shrugging as they govern badly in dime store New Deal fashion -- felt the need to go to a far-left website to see if they can stir trouble between Hannity and O'Donnell speaks for itself.

The one, very significant difference between Reagan's battles and those faced by conservatives today? Everything Reagan discussed in that 1964 speech has come to pass. His refusal to play the Establishment game with Communism led to the Soviet Union landing on the "ash heap of history" -- as Reagan later predicted would be the case if America confronted the Soviets directly. And the problems with the deficit and the debt? Again, just as Reagan predicted in 1964, the refusal to keep this country on a low tax, budget balancing, limited government road has in fact now steered the country to the brink of disaster.

That's the fight. That's the battle. That's the war. Sean Hannity gets it. The Tea Partiers and other millions of Americans get it.

Some in the GOP Establishment -- for whatever reason -- don't get it or don't want to get it. South Carolina's other GOP Senator Lindsey Graham quickly singled out O'Donnell, the candidate Establishment Republicans had gone out of their way to deliberately sabotage as they had earlier tried to do with Rubio and Toomey among others: "If you think what happened in Delaware is a win for the Republican Party then we don't have a snowball's chance to win the White House." Graham was joined by Alabama Republican Congressman Spencer Bacchus, who blamed Sarah Palin for the loss of Senate seats.

There is a particular irony with Bacchus, who later sent out a spokesman to…um…clarify his remarks. Because of Hannity's outspoken support for the conservative principles of House Republicans…Bacchus will spend the next two years as the Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.

As for Lindsey Graham, were he a Senator from South Carolina the morning after Barry Goldwater's 45-state loss to Lyndon Johnson in 1964 he would have seen failure.

And he would have been wrong.

Said Reagan as he talked to this precise point long ago:

Let us lay to rest, once and for all, the myth [that conservatives are] a small group of ideological purists trying to capture a majority. Replace it with the reality of a majority trying to assert its rights against the tyranny of powerful academics, fashionable left-revolutionaries, some economic illiterates who happen to hold elective office and the social engineers who dominate the dialogue and set the format in political and social affairs. If there is any ideological fanaticism in American political life, it is to be found among the enemies of freedom on the left or right -- those who would sacrifice principle to theory, those who worship only the god of political, social and economic abstractions, ignoring the realities of everyday life. They are not conservatives.

Senator Graham may not understand this. There are obviously others in the GOP Establishment who don't understand it.

Sean Hannity clearly does understand it, which is why he used this particular Reagan passage to close his book.

Hannity's message -- Reagan's message -- delivered with crisp clarity over and over again, has in fact turned out to be a winner for conservatives yet again.

Just ask those new Republican members of the House. They are, without doubt, conservatives. They took the conservative challenge. They campaigned as conservatives. They won a conservative victory. Which is why they will soon be taking their seats.

In the House that Hannity Built.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.