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As Long as We Remember...

April 13, 2004

Is Bush Losing His Primary Base?

Tony Soltero

Not long ago I was filling up at a local gas station. Next to me were a couple of thirtyish men pumping gas into their silver pickup truck.

They seemed to fit all of the standard NASCAR-dad stereotypes - two fit, flannel-shirted, blue-collar good-old-boys who looked like they partook of every hunting and fishing opportunity that came their way. Their truck even sported a prominent NRA sticker. This wasn't an atypical sight in rural Frederick County, of course, and, given the chilly weather, I was just trying to get the transaction over with and get back on my merry way.

Then, as the pump clicked off, their conversation carried over in my direction. Suffice it to say that if I wasn't already convinced that stereotyping is dangerous, this would've disabused me of the notion for good.

"Can you believe these gas prices?" said the driver to his friend.

"It's amazing. In an election year, no less", responded the rider.

"Well, I don't know who I'm voting for this year. But I'm taking a real close look at Kerry."

"I tell you, if they keep messing with Howard Stern, there's no way I'm voting for Bush."

"You can say that again. D--n religious right."

And with that epithet they drove off into the frigid night.

Now, I must confess that I've never been much of a fan of Howard Stern. I find his scatological brand of humor to be obnoxious and not terribly funny, and I'm just not a partisan of morning talk radio anyway.

But he obviously commands a strong and loyal listener base, and he generates a significant amount of income for the radio stations that carry him - if he didn't, they wouldn't air him. For better and worse, he's an icon of the airwaves, sort of a déclassé Stephen King for commuters.

But Howard Stern's been diversifying lately. In addition to his usual sophomoric bathroom gags, Mr. Stern's been launching some scathing broadsides at George W. Bush in recent months. Like millions of Americans, he supported the Iraq war in the beginning. And like millions of Americans, he's had enough of the Bush administration's ever-shifting rationales for pursuing the conflict, not to mention his fill of White House evasiveness and propaganda.

And he's been speaking out about it. As he has every right to, given this little thing called the First Amendment.

You'd think that this wouldn't be a very big deal. After all, Mr. Stern's made his share of political statements before, including some very public endorsements of Christine Todd Whitman when she was campaigning for the New Jersey governorship (which she won).

And he wasn't shy about lending his voice to the chorus of criticisms of Hans Blix and his UN team during the pre-war WMD inspections. His ClearChannel employers never had a problem with THAT.

But now they do. And he's been suddenly dropped from various ClearChannel stations, all of them, curiously, in "swing" states - most prominently (ahem) Florida.

The excuses given range from "he said a naughty word on the air" (as if there wasn't over a decade's worth of precedent for this) to "dropping ratings" (for which there's no evidence). Excuses that carry about as much credibility as a Condoleezza Rice lecture on Indonesian ornithology.

Meanwhile, hate-spewers like Michael Savage, who exudes more rotten offensiveness in one minute than Howard Stern has since he's been on the air, happily continues to prattle their venom. It appears that our "liberal" media (can we put an end to this canard already?) cuts its right-wing voices much more slack than it does its non-rightwing voices.

Funny how our current government preaches about "bringing democracy and freedom to Iraq," while at the same time enlisting its corporate surrogates (ClearChannel is a massive GOP contributor) to stifle it at home. With "liberty" like this, who needs dictatorships?

Mr. Stern isn't being silenced because he's "offensive;" he's being silenced because (a) he's speaking out against prominent Republicans, and (b) he's extremely influential.

But there's good news for those of us who believe in free expression and treasure our right to dissent.

ClearChannel's tried this kind of stunt before - with the Dixie Chicks. And their album promptly soared to No. 1 in the country charts despite the company-mandated withholding of airplay.

With Howard Stern, the backlash might be even larger. And if that gas-station conversation is any indication of the bigger picture, Senator Kerry's going to win in a romp. The blue-collar white males who make up a large chunk of Stern's audience are also a key Bush constituency. If Bush loses them, he's toast.

If Howard's kept off ClearChannel, he might latch on to Air America and take a hefty number of listeners with him, giving the infant liberal network an instant reliable fan base, and greatly expanding the audience for anti-Bush views, too rarely articulated in our mainstream media. Would Randi Rhodes begin to outdraw Rush Limbaugh once the general public catches a couple of her shows?

The Republicans hoisting themselves on their own petard? The irony would be too rich to contemplate.

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