They got the grassroots’ message

The gathering took place the evening before the Senate’s cloture vote on the immigration vote. The Bush administration, its allies in the Senate and the political establishment they represent believed they were perhaps only two or three votes short of the 60 needed to roll their conservative opponents and pass a “reform” package over the objections of a vast majority of the American people.

It was a small, intimate fundraiser for a Republican senator facing reelection. The senator was considered an administration stalwart, a supposed “moderate” beholden not to the followers of right-wing talk radio, but to the voters of what the pollsters and pundits these days like to call a “purple” state — just the sort of fellow the president’s men knew they would be able to count on when the Senate voted the next morning.

If there was any doubt about the faith they had in the senator, it was dispelled by the words of the high-ranking official dispatched to introduce him, who described the senator as a loyalist whom the president knew would stand with him the next morning.

When the senator took the floor, however, he reported that he had tallied up the constituent calls coming into his office on the immigration bill that day and found them both interesting and instructive. It seems that his staff had taken more than 3,000 calls from voters opposing cloture, along with 19 from people who encouraged him to stand with the president.

The next morning he and many others the White House had counted on jumped ship, opposed cloture and handed the president, John McCain, Teddy Kennedy and the political establishment what the media described as a “stunning” defeat.

It may have been a defeat for the political establishment, but it was a real victory for conservatives and the millions of Americans who learned, once again, that even a tone-deaf political establishment will take notice when they get mad enough to let the men and women they send to Washington know how strongly they feel about an issue.

They take notice because they like their jobs and want to keep them. They balk at first, of course, as they almost automatically assume that their establishment friends inside the Washington Beltway are smarter and higher-minded than those pesky voters who call, write and even visit their offices from time to time.

Thus, they were subjected to the spectacle of Mississippi’s Trent Lott (R) suggesting that the liberals seeking a way to shut up the “talk radio” crowd have a point. The old “Fairness Doctrine” was dusted off as a way to stifle the Limbaughs and Hannitys of the world, who all agreed were misleading the American people on immigration and unfairly maligning those in office who wanted to “do the right thing.”

Sean Hannity’s sins this time around struck many as particularly egregious. Ohio Republican Sen. George Voinovich hung up on him on the air when asked if he had actually read the legislation he was being asked to vote on, and White House spokesman Tony Snow — who accused Hannity of “lying” about the bill — was speechless when Hannity asked him to detail just one such “lie.”

Snow said he’d have to get back to him on that; Voinovich, mad as he was, eventually got the message, as did other senators who realized that in a representative democracy they had to pay at least some attention to those who elect them.

In fact, the scuttling of a horrendously flawed immigration reform package was only one of the high points of the week for conservatives. Indiana Rep. Mike Pence (R) convinced his House colleague to pass a bill ruling out the return of the Fairness Doctrine as a way to shut down talk radio. His legislation was put together and passed quickly. It sent a clear message to those who, like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, are so offended by those who disagree with them that their first instinct is to use the power of the state to silence them.

And there was more. The Supreme Court sided with those who have argued from the beginning that John McCain’s campaign finance reforms crossed the line in banning issues advocacy in the run-up to elections and hinted that it might, if presented with a proper case, find the whole McCain-Feingold assault on free speech unconstitutional.

One wonders if a court that included Bush loyalists like Harriet Miers and Alberto Gonzales would have even been able to grasp the issues involved in such a case. Those two never made it to the court, of course, because of the same grassroots outrage that killed the immigration bill and that the Supreme Court has wisely decided to protect.


Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at Keeneacu@aol.com.