Rush Limbaugh isn’t one of the most successful broadcasters in history because of his mild-mannered personality. The conservative talk-show host attracts 20 million listeners a week because he has a knack for stirring up controversy. And Limbaugh did just that within days of President Obama’s inauguration.
"I want him to fail," Limbaugh told Fox News. "If his agenda is a far-left collectivism, some people say socialism, as a conservative …, why would I want socialism to succeed?
Obama had an answer, which he directed to congressional Republicans balking at a proposed $850 billion economic stimulus bill: "You can’t just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done."
Is the dispute between Obama and Limbaugh helpful? Does Limbaugh coarsen the public discourse? Are Obama’s appeals to post-partisanship an effort to diffuse legitimate criticism? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, weigh in.
If liberals didn’t have Rush, they would need to invent him.
Love him or loathe him, Limbaugh is the arguably leading spokesman for conservatism in America today. Whether that’s good for conservatism is an open question. But there can be no doubt that Rush articulates conservative ideas of limited government, economic liberty and a robust national defense like no other. That makes him an obvious mark.
Limbaugh is certainly right that the $850 billion stimulus bill is anything but stimulating: It is, in fact, a pork-laden monstrosity that would likely extend the current recession, rather than shorten it. If post-partisanship means acceding to Obama’s demand that Republicans keep politics to a minimum, then many Americans who voted for John McCain might be forgiven for cheering Limbaugh’s outspoken brand of partisanship.
Fact is, Limbaugh moves voters and influences activists. He does so not simply by fueling the outrage of his listeners. He deploys humor to powerful effect. That’s part of what drives Limbaugh’s liberal opponents so crazy. He laughs at them — all the way to the bank. Obama would do well to take heed and tread lightly.
Rush Limbaugh might indeed be the apotheosis of modern conservatism: Mean-spirited, sexist and bigoted. Liberals could hardly invent a better bogeyman if they tried.
But perhaps that’s giving Limbaugh too much credit. His job, after all, isn’t politics. It’s entertainment. He gets paid $50 million a year — a sum closer to the earnings of, say, Barbra Streisand than any politician or mainstream commentator — to sell advertising for the radio stations that carry his show. To do that, he has to deliver a huge audience.
That he does deliver that audience is proof that conservatism still has appeal in this country, even after eight disastrous years of the Bush administration. It’s also a testament to the enduring power of Limbaugh’s shtick: Outrage. Perpetual, nonstop, bleeding-ulcer outrage. He was angry during the first Bush administration. He was angry during the Clinton years. And he was angry during the second Bush administration. Now President Obama is in town and — surprise! — Rush Limbaugh is still angry. That may be entertaining, but it’s not really a political philosophy. It’s a marketing decision.
That’s not to say Limbaugh doesn’t wield some power; GOP congressmen clearly fear his influence over their constituents. President Obama, though, is wise to caution those congressmen about paying too much deference to Limbaugh; their job is to help run the country, not sell advertising. Let’s hope they understand the difference.
(Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis podcast weekly at http://www.infinitemonkeysblog.com and http://politics.pwblogs.com/.)