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The Right-Wing Media's Immigration Trap

02/11/2013 09:26 pm ET | Updated Apr 13, 2013

President Obama is "busy trying to get everybody to hate each other." That's the conclusion Fox News CEO Roger Ailes describes in a provocative new interview with The New Republic. It's an ironic claim coming from a man whose network has profited for years from promoting racial discord, only to see that very animosity torpedo his political party and ensnare their media megaphone.

Immigration reform has trapped Fox and the rest of the right-wing media between their ideological audience and their political leaders, with no way to emerge from the debate while maintaining their relationships with both. They must either divorce themselves from the Republican Party, or abandon the people whose regard pays their salaries, a stark choice that has resulted in the straddling and ideological contortions we've seen of late. It's still unclear which way their opportunism will take them.

It is in this environment that Ailes recently told The New Republic that his network will begin to "articulate" that Republicans "have a lot more opportunity" to offer Latinos than Democrats and declared, "I don't have any problem with a path to citizenship." It's a calculated risk that the political gain that could accrue to the Republican Party if they are credited with helping to pass reform and the potential new viewership among Latinos outweighs the hit Fox might take to its ratings if the shift in tone offends its right-wing audience.

Ailes certainly has a long way to go if he hopes a change in tone will bring in a Latino audience and convince them to support the GOP.

Conservative talkers on radio and TV have spent years spewing invective against undocumented immigrants, with dramatic impact both in Washington and on their audiences. The right-wing media was widely credited with defeating efforts for bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform during the Bush administration. Listeners and viewers received a daily dose of invective from Rush Limbaugh, Lou Dobbs, Sean Hannity, and others, all declaring the legislation amnesty and calling for its defeat. As the 2007 bill sank, then-Senate Majority Whip Trent Lott (R-MS) decried how "talk radio is running America" and complained that senators were "being pounded by these talk-radio people who don't even know what's in the bill."

The revolt against legislation that had been endorsed by President Bush and the Republican congressional leadership was a substantial shift for a community of right-wing pundits who had served as lapdogs to the GOP for years. And with the bill's defeat, comprehensive immigration reform was pushed off the agenda for half a decade, as GOP leaders backpedaled furiously to realign their position on the issue with that of their base.

But the party paid a heavy price for that shift, both losing support among Latinos and stirring up their base in a manner difficult to walk back. The GOP presidential candidates' share of the Latino vote has plummeted from 44 percent in 2004 to only 27 percent in 2012. And the years of vicious anti-immigrant hate has led to broader prejudice among the right-wing media audience -- a recent National Hispanic Media Coalition survey found "a consistent pattern whereby Fox News audiences are indeed more likely to hold negative stereotypes about Latinos."

This collapse in support for Republicans among Latinos has led to a panicked reassessment in the Republican Party, with party elders determined to find a way to recapture the votes of a group that at one point was splitting almost evenly between the parties. And in the days after Romney's defeat, several right-wing media leaders joined them, led by News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch, who wrote on Twitter that "Republicans have to ignore 5 per cent nativists and embrace Hispanics."

Murdoch was joined by, among others, Hannity, who declared that [w]e've got to get rid of the immigration issue altogether," saying he had "evolved" on immigration and calling for a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented; Laura Ingraham, who said that in the wake of the election "the language of dealing with Latinos has to be changed"; and Bill O'Reilly, who said that the GOP "has to figure out what message in their philosophy is going to be accepted by black and Latino voters." All had records of anti-immigrant rhetoric, but shifted their tone to boost the GOP.

Others on the right refused to back down and vehemently pushed back against the notion that a shift on immigration was necessary. Rush Limbaugh made clear that any immigration proposal would have to go through him. "I don't know that there's any stopping this," said the prominent host. "It's up to me and Fox News, and I don't think Fox News is that invested in this." Meanwhile, Levin accused Republicans of "race pandering."

But the GOP establishment players worried about their party's ability to attract Latinos had an ace in the hole: Sen. Marco Rubio, who has emerged as the GOP's champion on immigration reform in the days since the election. Rubio brings with him a unique shield from right-wing criticism. Rather than being a supposed maverick like Sen. John McCain, Rubio is a staunch Tea Party conservative who has spent years building up his bona fides, and is regarded as a rising star by that movement. Conservative media figures like him and want him to succeed. And that has led to an odd dynamic on the right.

Rubio has made a whirlwind tour among the top right-wing talkers to promote the Senate plan he supports, which includes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, a policy anathema on the right. Listeners and viewers were treated to quite a spectacle: right-wing hosts who had made their bones on rants against amnesty praising Rubio as a "very, very impressive man" looking to do something "admirable" with his "fascinating" plan. Rubio's office was quick to blast out the talkers' praise to reporters.

But while the talkers have been happy to praise Rubio, they've stopped short of fully endorsing his plan. The reason seems clear: it remains toxic with their audience. According to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, those who identify themselves as "very conservative" oppose a path to citizenship by a 37-61 margin.

One area where everyone on the right can agree, however, is that they despise President Obama. Thus we see Sean Hannity using his Fox platform to castigate the president for supporting a path to citizenship, which Hannity termed "amnesty," while praising Rubio for his own plan, which also includes a path to citizenship.

A right-wing media united in their hatred of the president has little direction to go other than outright rejection of whatever Obama calls for, regardless of what that is. Thus Obama's plan becomes "amnesty" even though, while there remain some key differences, its details are quite similar to the plan created by the Group of Eight, which itself closely resembles the defeated bipartisan plans of the last decade.

This is nothing new. Obama was met with near-universal Republican opposition when he backed a health care reform bill featuring proposals gleaned from legislation Mitt Romney passed in Massachusetts. Climate legislation based on the sorts of cap and trade ideas that had circulated in Republican circles for years and had been backed by McCain before the 2008 election was suddenly anathema once it had Obama's support. Conservatives have noted for generations that tax cuts provide economic stimulus - except the ones Obama put forth in his 2009 stimulus bill, which they lined up to falsely claim had created no jobs.

And so the legal status of 11 million immigrants hangs in the balance, held hostage by a right-wing media searching desperately for a way to hold on to their audience without driving their party to political Armageddon.