Stern Reality for the GOP

Republicans should not underestimate Howard Stern’s political influence

Sadly, the chances that Air America Radio and the new liberal radio program hosted by Al Franken ’73, will have more than a marginal influence on this country’s political climate are next to nothing. As one observer noted, conservative programs like those hosted by Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are popular because conservative ideas are relatively simple and unsophisticated—and that’s exactly the level of discourse that’s likely to capture the attention of the apathetic, uncommitted voters who decide elections. As hilarious as he is, Franken and his rhetoric don’t fit that profile.

Instead, the swing voters in this year’s elections will be lured by one of their own; that is, the voice that should agitate the incumbents of Capitol Hill and the White House—and perhaps already has—is none other than Howard Stern’s. Not a political commentator by trade, but with (until recently) an extraordinarily wide audience of 16 million, Stern has remarkable political power. Because his bias is neither consistently conservative nor consistently liberal, he enjoys a level of political credibility that more dogmatically motivated hosts can never hope to conquer.

Stern’s talk is many things—vulgar, offensive and sometimes disparaging of other cultures—but one thing it’s not, is out of touch. Since the destruction of the World Trade Center, the substance of his political comments has fluctuated in sync with the Bush administration’s approval ratings. In the fall of 2001 and the winter of 2002, he alternated fervent celebrations of the courageous rescue workers who gave their lives with crude, reproachful generalizations directed at the loathed “towel-heads.” In the spring and summer of 2003, amidst strong popular support for the victorious commander-in-chief, he viciously lashed out at the French for failing to help us in our just war on Iraq. And today, as Bush’s triumphs past are forgotten—or debunked—the White House’s poll numbers hover dangerously low. Stern, ever faithful to capricious public opinion, has now become a valuable and improbable advocate for presidential hopeful Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., lauding his environmental and economic plans. And when comparing his illustrious security record to the incumbent’s, Stern rants that the latter has “no clue” what it is to risk one’s life in the defense of one’s country.

For all its strategies to befriend simple people—a slow-witted figurehead, two tax cuts for the rich masquerading as generous lump-sum refunds for working folks and two crusades against the “evil” worshippers of Allah—the Bush administration sacrificed one of its best assets when it decided to make a big to-do about its alliance with the religious right. For two years the King of All Media galvanized a considerable audience of political dummies in the president’s support. But their differences on fundamental peacetime social issues like abortion, gay marriage and, most powerfully, freedom of expression now threaten to loosen the hold Bush has likely had on Stern’s audience, made up of the same ordinary people whom the administration has always sought to attract.

If Republican strategists are rightly unflustered in the face of Franken’s FM adventures, they should turn their dials to Stern as they sip their morning coffee and come to terms with the inspiration he’s capable of generating. They might consider, too, that Clear Channel doesn’t further their cause when it decides to drop a talk show two days after its host scorns the president, effectively transforming part of the broadcast on the remaining stations into an NPR fundraiser-style segment. And this drive won’t be over until the Bible-toting administration gets out of Stern’s way—and out of everyone else’s, for that matter. Unless Bush keeps in touch with what really matters to his people, as he did for two years and as Stern has to this day, he’ll have to take his job creation plans with him back to Crawford.

Daniel B. Holoch ’06 is an ESPP concentrator in Quincy House.

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