The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Friday, March 6, 2009

Fools Rush In

Love him or hate him, Rush Limbaugh is a prominent and certainly a strident voice within conservative circles. However, we must now evaluate a new claim to his celebrity that, for once, does not emanate from Rush himself. Suddenly, Democrats everywhere, including the Obama White House, are insisting Limbaugh is the voice and de facto leader of the Republican Party.

First brought up by Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel during an appearance on CBS’s Face the Nation last Sunday, former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe fully set forth the argument Wednesday in the pages of the Washington Post.

“It would appear that [Republicans] missed the unmistakable signals [of the 2008 election]. Instead, Rush Limbaugh has become their leader. Limbaugh, of course, told his radio listeners that he's rooting for President Obama to fail – and hoping the President's ideas for bolstering our economy fail with him. For many Americans, hungry for leadership and cooperation, this sounded like fingernails on a chalkboard.”

House Minority Leader John Boehner angrily replied the very next day.

“In a carefully calculated campaign, operatives and allies of the Obama Administration are seeking to divert attention toward radio host Rush Limbaugh and away from a debate about our alternative solutions on the economy and the irresponsible spending binge they are presiding over.”

Each side accuses the other of the same political scheming. New York Times columnist Timothy Egan writes, “But therein lies the main tactic of Limbaugh, an old demagogue technique – create a straw man, then tear it down. The latest example was when Limbaugh presented himself as the defender of capitalism, liberty and unfettered free markets . . . . [and Obama as] waging a war on capitalism.”

For his part, Boehner charges, “[Democrats are] desperately try to change the subject by creating straw men – called ‘the party of no’ – to rally against.” Limbaugh himself echoes this accusation, saying, “[Democrats] need a demon about whom they can lie so as to persuade average Americans that they're the good guys, the benevolent good guys, and the mean SOBs are their enemies trying to stop this great young little President from doing miraculous and wonderful things.”

The bottom line is that both sides are correct.

Numerous reports have surfaced that the sound bites against Limbaugh are the contrived product of senior White House officials and various Democratic strategists, including Paul Begala, James Carville, George Stephanopoulos, and Stan Greenberg, to keep the GOP looking as unattractive as possible to moderate and Independent voters.

“It may be counterproductive. I'll give you that,” admitted Press Secretary Robert Gibbs to reporters’ questions about the Administration’s war of words against Limbaugh.

It is more than that; it is grossly hypocritical. As David Harsanyi cogently argues in Reason, “After eight years of seething hatred – plenty of it deserved – for George W. Bush, this brand of contrived indignation touches a new level of creative dishonesty.” Turnabout may be poetic justice in this situation but it is not fair play. Hoping that the President and/or his policies fail is not the same thing as wishing for the economy and the country to fail.

Calling Limbaugh the head of the Republican Party is equally untrue but refuting this charge is a murkier undertaking because Republicans themselves seem so determined at times to act as though he were. In doing so, they make just as big a mistake as Democrats.

There is no question that Limbaugh wields very real and substantial political power. The Republican Party dubbed him a “national precinct captain” during its 1994 Congressional victory. National Review magazine called Limbaugh “The Leader of Conservative Principles” during the Clinton Administration.

During the 2008 Democratic primaries, Limbaugh initiated “Operation Chaos,” which resulted in sixteen thousand Ohio Republicans and an unknown number of Texas Republicans crossing political lines and voting for Clinton against Obama.

Recently, Republican leaders who directly or indirectly criticized Limbaugh over his failure comments, including Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina, Representative Phil Gingrey of Georgia, and, most notably, newly elected RNC Chairman Michael Steel, have been forced to issue public retractions/apologies.

Limbaugh himself insists, with mock humility, “I am an average citizen . . . I have a microphone. I am not in charge of one Republican policy.” Yet earlier this year he exulted, “[Obama is] obviously more frightened of me than he is Mitch McConnell. He’s more frightened of me, than he is of, say, John Boehner.”

Others seem to agree with that assessment. Conservative organizer Richard Viguerie told the Washington Times that the “Rushification of the GOP is inevitable . . . because no one else is acting like a Republican leader. Limbaugh has something to say. He actually believes in something. He has the confidence of his convictions. He doesn't cower in fear of the President's popularity.”

Even so, all this unquestioned political power does not automatically make someone a Republican Party leader, even if their views coincide exclusively with those of that Party. The conventional wisdom is to view Limbaugh as a kind of career ideological rabble-rouser, with groups such as or, more recently, Americans United for Change as his liberal counterparts. This is also a mistake.

Limbaugh is not a conservative activist. He is a radio news host in the style of Paul Harvey – a journalistic entertainer who seamlessly transitions from unvarnished facts to filtered facts to speculative opinion without any disclaimers of such or changes in presentation style. Limbaugh is not a creature of the Republican Party; he created himself to satisfy the unmet needs of a previously untapped conservative audience. He owes his living not to contributions from any Party or his listeners but rather from the support of his advertisers.

Limbaugh has survived a number of potential career-ending gaffes – from mocking actor Michael J. Fox’s Parkinson’s symptoms to revelations about his addiction to painkiller medications to comments concerning “phony soldiers” to ridiculing Obama as “Barack the magic Negro” – because of the same phenomenon that Obama currently enjoys. To wit, Limbaugh is often more personally popular with his listeners than are his views on any specific issue.

Limbaugh has been able to build up this “journalistic/entertainment capital” for several reasons. He usually ensures that even his most outrageous positions have at least some basis in Truth and that the conclusions he draws from this starting point seem reasonable and logically consistent, at least to biased listeners. Most importantly, he knows how to give his audience what it wants, which is a perpetual fight against the Democratic Party and liberalism in general.

This is what makes Limbaugh such a dangerous figurehead or spokesperson for Republicans. He may be happy when the public perceives him as having won an argument but he does not especially desire victory. Victory only buys him a few days of gloating before listeners get bored with it. Conversely, a good ongong, unresolved argument provides him weeks, months, and even years of political fodder to chew up and spit out as invective.

As such, Limbaugh’s first interest is what will keep him employed and on the air rather than what is best for the Republican Party or best for America. I am not accusing him of outright hypocrisy or lack of patriotism. The latter things may indeed be important to him but, by needs, they must rank lower than the former.

The exact size of Limbaugh’s audience is unclear. Limbaugh himself routinely describes them as numbering twenty million. Others place its size as “at least sixteen million,” while Arbitron ratings found a minimum weekly average of thirteen and a half million listeners. Any of these numbers still leaves Limbaugh with the largest radio audience in the nation.

However, the main problem with Limbaugh’s audience is not its size but its demographics. Polling data consistently establishes his listeners are overwhelmingly die-hard Republicans, overwhelmingly white, and overwhelmingly male. The more Limbaugh’s political power forces Republican leaders to adhere to the brand of angry, antagonistic conservatism Limbaugh has found profitable to sell, the more they estrange themselves from the Independent voters, women voters, and minority voters they want and need to bring into their tent.

Conservative writer David Frum explains it nicely. “If you’re a talk radio host [with an audience of thirteen to twenty million people] and there are fifty million people who hate you, you make a nice living. If you’re the Republican Party, you’re marginalized.”

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell adds that the only way for the Republican Party to reconnect with average Americans is to stop “shouting at the world.” Limbaugh, of course, owes his multi-million per year salary for his ability never to stop shouting at everybody about everything.

In the end, Minority Leader Boehner is the one who deserves the last word on this topic. “Something is wrong when the discourse in Washington is more focused on a political sideshow than [solutions],” he wisely observes. “These diversionary tactics will not create a single job or help a single family struggling in today's economic crisis. And that is where our focus should be.”

Quite right. Talking about Rush Limbaugh, even to criticize him, is inherently counter-productive. Limbaugh knows that, for him, it is arguments and not solutions that pay the bills and keep him pumping out his personal agenda to millions. Only fools rush in to take on Rush. You cannot out-shout him. Some of that “talent on loan from God” he always brags about includes (literal) deafness, a bullhorn voice, and a love/craving for controversy.

The only way to marginalize Limbaugh and the thing he fears most is for all of us to leave him in silence.

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