Steele vs. Limbaugh: Who's in Charge of the GOP?

This is a rush transcript from "On the Record ," March 3, 2009. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS HOST: Tonight: Rush Limbaugh under fire from the left and from the right. Now, Rush sparked outrage when he said "I hope he fails" about President Obama. But Rush says he wasn't attacking the president or America, but was attacking an agenda. Rush says he hopes a far-left agenda fails. Rush says his words have been distorted. He does not want the economy to fail.


RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: But I don't want the economy to fail. I don't want people losing their jobs and being kicked out of their houses. I don't want people going on Welfare and unemployment just for people to realize what a mistake they made with Obama. That -- I -- I -- that's -- I -- I want Obama to fail, not the country! I want Obama to fail in being successful with his economic plan!


VAN SUSTEREN: A political punchfest. This time, Rush Limbaugh versus RNC head Michael Steele. Steele said this about Rush. "Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer. His whole thing is entertainment. Yes, it's incendiary. Yes, it's ugly," and said, "I'm the de facto leader of the Republican Party, not Rush." But Mr. Limbaugh did not like that.


LIMBAUGH: I hope the RNC chairman will realize he's not a talking head pundit, that he is supposed to be working on the grass roots and rebuilding it and maybe doing something about our open primary system fixing it so that Democrats do not nominate our candidates! It's time, Mr. Steele, for you to go behind the scenes and starting doing the work that you were elected to do instead of trying to be some talking head media star, which you're having a tough time pulling off.

By the same token, I'm not in charge of the Republican Party and I don't want to be. I would be embarrassed to say that I'm in charge of the Republican Party in the sad-sack state that it's in!


VAN SUSTEREN: Steele quickly tried to make nice, saying, "My intent was not to go after Rush. I have enormous respect for Rush Limbaugh. I was maybe a little bit inarticulate. There was no attempt on my part to diminish his voice or his leadership."

Now, just moments ago, we spoke to Sean Hannity, host of "Hannity" on FOX News.


VAN SUSTEREN: Sean, thanks -- Sean, thanks for sticking around. So I want you to be the big explainer. What is this, for lack of a better word, controversy, the Rush Limbaugh-Michael Steele? What's going on?

SEAN HANNITY, HOST, "HANNITY": Greta, by the way, it's great to be here. Thank you for having me. You know, first of all, Michael Steele and Rush Limbaugh go back a long way. And look, I can't give you the specifics of it because I didn't hear the initial interview of it. But the gist of it was, is that Michael was on a -- a program, said something, you know, that Rush is an entertainer, et cetera, et cetera, and that he was controversial.

It wasn't what he meant. I talked to Michael on my radio program today, and Mike is a fan of Rush Limbaugh's, has been a friend for years. And so what he did was, he said, Look, I misspoke. It wasn't what I meant. It didn't come out the way I intended. I apologize to Rush. And Rush accepted the apology, controversy over.

VAN SUSTEREN: I guess the word "entertainer" is the word that probably was the biggest jab? Or do you agree or not?

HANNITY: Yes. You know what? Rush I know responded on his program because I think he was, rightly so, a little bit offended, Greta. But you know, look, there's nothing wrong with saying -- I'm on the radio every day, and I want to inform and entertain and offer news and opinions that I think an audience can't get in the -- I call the Obama mania media, Greta. But I try and give a point of view that I think people won't get elsewhere.

But look, Rush is -- I know him. I'm friends with him. He's a gracious, gracious man, and when he says it's over, I don't think there's anything left here.

VAN SUSTEREN: And I take it that Michael Steele, it's over for him, too, because Rush did fire back pretty -- you know, hard back at him, saying he -- you know, he shouldn't being going on TV, or I forgot what exactly, but he fired back equally as strong. So...

HANNITY: He did.

VAN SUSTEREN: Michael accepts that, and is it over?

HANNITY: As far as I know, they're both saying that it's over, so I'm -- I'm accepting that it's over. I'm going to tell you what. I want it to be over, and I know Rush, if he says it's over, it's over. And I'll tell you why, Greta, is there's too much at stake.

There's too much that people that like Michael Steele and Rush Limbaugh agree on, and that is that this is the single biggest takeover of the economy in our history, that we have -- you know, we have Americans tonight, Greta, that have literally lost half their retirement income, that literally are afraid for their jobs. We got job numbers coming out Friday. I would anticipate they're not going to be good. We have 10 percent unemployment in states like California. That's not good. And you know, here we have more spending, more reckless than ever before, more earmarks. You're covering it. We're covering it.

And you know what? Conservatives that believe in limited government, our Constitution, free markets, capitalism -- I want to see these guys united, Greta.

VAN SUSTEREN: Sean, who is, if you were to guess tonight -- I mean, I realize things change as time marches -- who's the head of the Republican Party right now? Who's the leader?

HANNITY: Well -- you know, there are a lot of leaders in the Republican Party. I mean, certainly, Michael Steele is the chairman of the Republican National Committee. If you're asking maybe in the sense of who's going to be the next presidential candidate, I think it's too early to tell.

If you're asking if I think it's Rush Limbaugh, I would argue that Rush is the leader of the conservative movement in the country. I think he is -- has been the strongest, the most conservative, the most articulate voice of Reagan conservatism in the country.

And -- you know, I got to tell you something. He has been consistent throughout the years. He -- he -- look, I don't identify myself -- and this surprises a lot of people -- I'm not a Republican. I vote Republican usually, but I consider myself a conservative first. When I listen to Rush, I hear -- he has very similar values. He is a Reagan conservative. He believes in limited government, the things that I just discussed.

So you know, I mean, we could break this down and differentiate who's the leader, who's not the leader. I don't know who the leader is. I don't appoint leaders. Michael Steele is the head of the RNC. I would say Rush is by far the most articulate defining voice of conservatism in America today, and you know, as a conservative, I'm glad he's out there.

VAN SUSTEREN: You know, it's sort of interesting. He's a little bit like Hillary Clinton. Get ready for this one because I know this is going to be...


VAN SUSTEREN: ... sound strange to you -- but in that, you know, when he speaks and Senator Clinton did for a long, they're both sort of lightning rods. They really got to the other side, to their opponents. It's sort of interesting, like, he -- since he spoke on Saturday, he has been monopolizing the discussion almost, just by talking.

HANNITY: You know, look, it's because Rush is a powerful voice. I mean, look, if what he was saying wasn't resonating, if he didn't command the audience he commands every day -- and I'm in radio, Greta, and I have a pretty substantial radio size audience -- you know, Rush is the leader in radio by a pretty substantial amount.

There's a reason for it. What he says is resonating with people in this country. And he commands an audience because of what he says. Now, I know there was a lot made of these remarks that, frankly, were first made on this program, my program -- as you know, and I know you covered it -- when he said, Well -- well, I asked him the question, Do you want Barack Obama to succeed? Everybody in the media, unfortunately, took his comments out of context. That's not what he said!

He said that if Barack Obama wants to add Ronald Reagan to Abraham Lincoln and FDR, then I want him to succeed. But I don't believe socialism is the answer for our economic woes. And if that's what he wants for America, I want socialism to fail. And that's -- and I don't think he could have been more clear.

VAN SUSTEREN: And of course, you know, everyone's paying a lot of attention in particular to his shows on both sides of the aisle, you know, in the next couple days after this past weekend.


VAN SUSTEREN: And of course, I hope that he hears that I compared him to Hillary Clinton because he will...

HANNITY: Yes, no, he's...

VAN SUSTEREN: ... love that comparison.


VAN SUSTEREN: That's a first. That's a first for him. Anyway, Sean, thank you.

HANNITY: Don't ever...


HANNITY: Don't ever compare me to Hillary! I -- you know...

VAN SUSTEREN: I got one for you! Don't worry. I got -- I've got a secret one to compare you to, but...

HANNITY: Uh-oh. Who is it?

VAN SUSTEREN: I'll hold you in suspense. I'm not telling. I'll hold you in suspense.

HANNITY: Are you going to tell us by...

VAN SUSTEREN: That way, I'll get you back.

HANNITY: ... the end of the show? Do I have to watch the end of the show now?

VAN SUSTEREN: I'm going to put up a puzzle of it, I think.



HANNITY: Greta...

VAN SUSTEREN: Anyway, thank you, Sean.

HANNITY: Thank you. It's good to see you.


VAN SUSTEREN: Well, another radio star joins us. Radio talk show host Laura Ingraham joins us on the phone. Laura, is Rush sort of shaking up both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party?

LAURA INGRAHAM, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Well, Greta, I think we're at the saturation point now with this story. I mean, Rush and Michael Steele I think have known each other for quite a while. I think Sean exactly right. This whole thing has been put behind them.

And more importantly, Greta, this is exactly -- this kind of internecine fighting is exactly the kind of thing that the left and Rahm Emanuel, the White House, I'm sure they're just laughing about. I mean, this country, our markets, our way of life, our culture -- it's all on the line with cabinet appointments like Kathleen Sebelius, with what's happening with international markets, our domestic markets. And we're talking about, you know, a radio giant fighting with the RNC chair or vice -- to me, it is so much a focus which is misdirected that it almost, you know, at some point wants -- you want to have your stomach turn over.

And I think Rush has made it clear that the Republican Party, in his mind, needs to wake up. I think he's right about that. And I think we need to see that there is a problem within the Republican Party if a radio talk show host as big as Rush is, and he's -- has the biggest audience, as Sean said -- look, I mean, why is he able to cut through and connect with the public in a way that elected officials time and again have not been able to do? I think that's a legitimate question that should be on the table. But as far as some...

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, I'll put that...

INGRAHAM: ... you know, internal fight, I think it's much ado about nothing.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, I'm putting that question on the table that you raised. Now can you answer, why is that?

INGRAHAM: Well, I think for -- you know, for years, the Republican Party tethered itself President Bush, who on some issues was, you know, I think a real strong champion of conservative ideals, but when it came to government spending, the growth of government, the rate of growth of government, immigration, a number of issues, he was just completely not connecting with -- you know, with the conservative movement. And yet Republicans followed him blindly, often blindly, over the last few years, and they've had to pay for that.

And you know, that's just -- you know, President Bush is a good man and a patriot, a wonderful person. But time and again, on issue after issue, he was not a conservative, and that really ended up handcuffing and hurting the GOP, and now you're seeing the fallout.

Now, they're picking themselves up and they're dusting themselves up, and I think you're seeing signs of life within the Republican Party. But Rush was right. You know, Michael Steele needs to, you know, figure out, you know, how to grow this party and appeal beyond the 30 percent base that it has right now. That's a big task that he has at hand, and you know, probably more important than being on, you know, a variety of television shows. Except yours, Greta. If he goes on yours, then that's a totally separate thing.

VAN SUSTEREN: And I love that you put that plug in.

INGRAHAM: Yes. Of course.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, Laura, thank you.


VAN SUSTEREN: And I'm -- and we'll all be listening to your radio show tomorrow...


INGRAHAM: Michael Steele's going to be on tomorrow, Greta. He's going to be on. I just got word that he's going to be on our show, so we'll -- we'll continue the conversation.

VAN SUSTEREN: Even more reason.

INGRAHAM: Exactly.

VAN SUSTEREN: Even more reason to put the word out because Laura's going to speak directly to Michael Steele tomorrow on her radio show. Thank you, Laura.

INGRAHAM: Thanks, Greta.

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