Senate Amnesty Supporters Boast Marco Rubio ‘Neutralized’ Limbaugh, Fox News

New Yorker reporter Ryan Lizza caused a bit of a stir in the conservative media world today in a report he filed for the New Yorker about the ongoing debate in the U.S. Senate over an immigration bill that is currently opposed by many conservatives. According to the piece, the so-called Gang of Eight see the role of Florida Republican Marco Rubio as being to “neutralize” conservative talk radio and to get opinion hosts on Fox News Channel to either talk up the legislation or at least not oppose it.

In their view, Rubio, who was initially touted by many conservatives nationally as their great hope even though he was regarded far more skeptically by Florida conservatives, has succeeded in his assignment.

Two Democrats in the group, New York’s Chuck Schumer and New Jersey’s Bob Menendez, flat-out stated as much to Lizza:

Menendez told me that Rubio’s role was to “work over the conservative universe, particularly the conservative opinion-maker universe,” in order to “neutralize them” and, in some cases, “proselytize them.” Schumer said, “He’s the real deal. He is smart, he is substantive. He knows when to compromise and when to hold. And he’s personable.” An aide to Menendez said that if the Gang were a group of high-school students, Rubio would be the cool jock and the captain of the football team, with whom everyone wanted to hang out. Schumer often found himself mediating disputes between Rubio and McCain, who felt that Rubio’s public statements sometimes positioned him positively with conservatives at the expense of the Gang. McCain would call Schumer and fume, “Look what Rubio’s doing!”

The “Gang” members also are crowing about what they appear to believe is their successful effort to get better coverage from Fox News Channel for their activities compared to the last time around in 2007. As quoted in the piece, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham is especially happy about this shift since he appears to think of his constituents as nothing more than mind-numbed Fox News robots. The Gang also appears to think that popular radio host Rush Limbaugh thinks the bill is a done deal:

In 2007, McCain reminded me, he and Graham had been attacked by a radio talk-show host as “Amnesty John and Lindsey Gomez.” Fox News’s coverage had been overwhelmingly negative, and few Republicans attempted to defend the bill. This time, Marco Rubio became the Gang’s official ambassador to the right, spending countless hours discussing the legislation with conservative news outlets. “Marco has been really the linchpin on the Republican side,” [Arizona Republican senator Jeff] Flake said. [...]

Fox News has notably changed its tone since the election. A Democratic policy staffer who worked on the issue in 2007 and has helped write the current bill said, “NumbersUSA and FAIR”--two groups that want to dramatically limit immigration--“managed to convince Fox News back then to be their twenty-four-hour news channel of the anti-immigrant point of view. Fox has now totally bought in to the idea that we just need to figure something out.” Rush Limbaugh, who opposes the bill, has come to sound resigned. “I don’t know if there’s anything stopping this,” he said on January 28th, the day the Gang held the press conference announcing its framework for the legislation. “It’s up to me and Fox News and I don’t think Fox News is that invested in this.”

McCain told me, “Rupert Murdoch [CEO of News Corporation, the parent company of Fox News] is a strong supporter of immigration reform, and Roger Ailes [president of Fox News] is, too.” [...] McCain said that he, Graham, Rubio, and others also have talked privately to top hosts at Fox, including Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Neil Cavuto, who are now relatively sympathetic to the Gang’s proposed bill. Hannity voiced support for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, which he previously dismissed as “amnesty,” on the day after the 2012 election. “God bless Fox,” Graham said. “Last time it was ‘amnesty’ every fifteen seconds.” He sad that the change was important for his reelection, because “eighty per cent of people in my primary get their news from Fox.” He added that the network has “allowed critics to come forward, but it’s been so much better.”

It surely is the case that the Gang of Eight has been lobbying Fox News on the issue but it is rather premature to think that their efforts are what’s led to an alleged change of tone on the topic of immigration, if that has actually taken place.

Indeed, one could argue that the change (and I don’t know that there has been one since I’ve seen no actual numbers based on content analysis from Lizza or anyone else) in Fox’s coverage was not brought on due to the efforts of Rubio or anyone else. McCain is correct in stating that Rupert Murdoch, does indeed support an amnesty bill. He has for a long time. If there has been a change in the FNC programming, however, it was not at the behest of Murdoch since he has never been shown to have made content directives for the news channel.

Instead, the alleged change of FNC’s immigration coverage would likely have been at the direction of FNC president Roger Ailes who appears to have recently changed his opinion on the subject. As chronicled in a biography which was released a few months ago by author Zev Chafets entitled Roger Ailes: Off Camera, Ailes admitted he now favors amnesty, regardless of what his conservative viewers might think about that:

“When this election is over, I’m going to give a speech,” Ailes told me. “Conservatives aren’t going to like it but I don’t give a damn. There is a confusion between the issue of sovereignty and the issue of immigration. Of course we have to protect our sovereignty and the border. But we’ve got to stop insulting millions of people by calling them ‘illegal aliens’ and acting like hopping the fence to feed your kids is a capital crime. We need to give them a way to enter legally, contribute, and feel welcome.” He knew that right-wing ideologues, led by his friend Rush Limbaugh, would insist that the GOP had underperformed because it had been insufficiently hard-line, and that the party had to double down. But Ailes was making a different bet. The GOP was going to need candidates who didn’t come across as heartless plutocrats or anti-Latino xenophobes and who had a less doctrinaire interpretation of core conservative principles. This wasn’t an election-night epiphany; Ailes had said similar things to me over the previous few months. But it was time to turn thought into action. The next day, at a production meeting with the senior staff, Ailes reiterated his views in very strong terms. Barely twenty-four hours later, Sean Hannity--the hardest of hard-liners on illegal immigration--would experience a change of heart, or as he put it, an evolution in his thinking: “If people are here, law abaiding, participating for years, their kids are born here, you know, first secure the border, then the pathway to citizenship.”

Two other tidbits from the Lizza piece worth noting:

  • Despite the public claims to the contrary, the Obama White House is far more involved in the legislative process pushing the bill sponsored by Schumer and Rubio forward.
  • Illinois Senator Dick Durbin apparently is fond of boasting about his ignorance. In the piece, Durbin puffs out his chest proudly at not knowing who conservative talk show host Mark Levin is. According to Durbin, Rubio “brings up the names of some of these conservative people I’ve never heard of who everybody in their caucus knows. I couldn’t pick him out of a lineup. Who is Mark Levin?” As Lizza notes, Levin has an audience of over 7 million people each week. That makes him far more influential than many media liberals who Durbin probably knows.

That latter point may prove particularly relevant as Hannity does not support granting amnesty without securing the border first and Limbaugh has opposed the bill all along. One suspects that once Levin and Limbaugh hear what was said about their alleged impotence, it will make them redouble their efforts to oppose the legislation.

And then there is the House as well which is far more conservative than the Senate. It is highly possible that even if Schumer-Rubio passes the Senate, it will stall in the House or get changed substantially.

Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013