Sunday, May 26, 2013

Is Rush the soul of the GOP?

Comment thread from Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic

I don't think Rush Limbaugh is the most powerful person in the GOP or the head of the party. But what is his position and role? That's a question that's mystified me for quite a while and maybe it's worth exploring. Let's look at some data points:
  • He is a big source of talking points for many conservatives, but so are Mark Levin, Breitbart, the Fox News commentators, Michelle Malkin, etc. He's not unique in having many dittoheads.
  • As the comment exchange above shows, Limbaugh hasn't had a strong influence on the party's choice of presidential nominee.
  • While he's a target for liberal anger, many conservatives have avoided criticizing him, his rants, and his positions.
To get a feel for Rush's significance, I read a lot of transcripts of his show. I read transcripts rather than listening because it's easier to apply critical thinking to text than to a stream of spoken words. It's easy to reread than to replay. I was also careful to apply reasonable guesses as to what was serious and what was satire.

Overall impressions
Though Limbaugh is most infamous for calling Sandra Fluke "a slut," he doesn't generally go in for extravagant name-calling. These are the insults I found in the course of researching his transcripts: slut (of course), feminazis, Dingy Harry (Reid), "Drive-By media," Mark "Maxi" Shields, and "NBC's Meet the Depressed,." This contrasts with someone like Ann Coulter, who's made a career of diatribes against liberals. Her statements are much more hyperbolic and insulting. Here's an example:
"Liberals hate the idea of God because it competes with their conception of themselves as a specially anointed elite."
So, even though I initially thought Limbaugh was a political shock jock, my research didn't bear that out. (Better examples of shock jocks here and here.)

Instead, Limbaugh seems to be an explainer for traditional conservatives. He provides the words to explain some inchoate thoughts and underlying premises that his listeners already have, but haven't verbalized. So his listeners may know they hate liberals, but he gives them specific examples of liberal behavior to hate, and specific arguments why liberal policies are stupid. This is extremely helpful if you don't know how to construct these arguments for yourself (the research for examples, the rationales for what's wrong). These explanations fill a void for the less intellectual conservatives, and there appear to be many of them.

Limbaugh's followers, if they want extreme rhetoric, have to go elsewhere. But they don't seem to want that. His callers, who are obviously screened, are always polite, as Limbaugh is to them. These aren't people looking for a pissing contest. They are socially conservative and are uncomfortable with obscenity and extreme language. They are family-oriented; many proudly saying how they are raising their children as "Rush babies," that is, children who grow up learning their political thinking from Limbaugh's radio show.

So Limbaugh casts himself as an educator, but also as a listener to his "salt-of-the-earth" audience. He builds them up as the ones who think, who understand the issues, who are the majority in the country, who  "probably know this yourself because you're the ones that create the results of the poll."

Limbaugh on policy and analysis
Limbaugh, for all his pride in educating and being educated in turn by his listeners, provides scattershot arguments. His logic is hard to follow, made even harder because he doesn't write columns, he only has his radio show, where he can throw in as many diversions and other tricks as he needs to camouflage weaknesses in his arguments. I tried to find a clear explanation and defense on many GOP positions, but I didn't find them. He sticks to sounds bite and taking potshots at liberal policies and liberal politicians. If anyone finds where he makes a strong, coherent argument for, say, a GOP tax policy, let me know.

The longest policy analysis I found from Limbaugh concerned immigration. In that piece, he made the following points, all quotes:

  • ...McCain was pro-amnesty. He didn't like the word, but McCain was identified with wanting it. A far as the Hispanic community was concerned, McCain was okay. He was all for relaxing immigration law.
  • And remember it was the conservatives who finally got a fire lit under the House Republicans in the summer of 2007 to kill it.
  • While the Hispanic voters would look at McCain and say, "Yeah, he's one of us. He's for us," they still couldn't vote for him because the party wasn't.
  • If amnesty was it, McCain shoulda won big...
Oh damn, that wasn't really a discussion about why a particular amnesty policy was better, but such explanations are rarely the subject for Limbaugh. Perhaps this is better, through still terribly thin on depth of analysis:
First conservative constitutional principles are the answer... The blueprint for rebuilding America has been written.  Ronaldus Magnus wrote it; Barry Goldwater wrote it; ... Friedrich Von Hayek wrote it; Milton Friedman wrote it.  Market capitalism is the answer. Robust liberty and freedom for the American people is the answer, and then a government willing, after unleashing that, to get out of its way is the answer. 
It's terribly frustrating, not finding the 'why' for ideas Limbaugh supports. I guess you just have to 'believe' despite Limbaugh's claims that his positions and his listeners' positions are based on knowledge and thinking.

Non-endorsement of candidates
Limbaugh assiduously avoids declaring preferences for one GOP candidate over others. He's got several good reasons for doing this. He avoids feeding the internecine battles that weaken the GOP (as they would with any party), and therefore his party is stronger. He also avoids the embarrassment of backing a loser. Since "I told you so" is a frequent refrain of his, his credibility in not backing a loser is probably the bigger consideration.

However, he does covertly signal his preferences. In 2008, he barely mentioned McCain. He spoke well of Fred Thompson, but hedged. He aired some complaints about Huckabee and called his supporters "Hucksters" which doesn't sound complimentary to my ears. In 2008, he liked Romney best among the final three, and speculated that there was a deal between McCain and Huckabee to block him. You know he dislikes a candidate when there's a criticism, but it's never so pointed that Limbaugh would be trapped as being against the candidate. As I said, he must remain neutral so that he doesn't lose credibility by picking a loser.

Here's a fascinating exchange with a caller who pleads with Limbaugh to mediate a squabble between Huckabee and Romney:
RUSH: It is an unfortunate comment, and Romney came back and said, yeah, these religious comments are over the top. It was what his speech was about last week, which I thought, as I said many times, I thought it was a fantastic, inspirational, and uplifting speech, and it wasn't so much about religion as it was about religion's ties to the founding of this country, and very, very important. I think Huckabee is showing us who he is, and he thinks this is what it takes to win, and he's a Baptist minister, and his religion is very serious to him, too. He's using it for all it's worth for him, and I think I understand why. I don't think I could stop it, either.
CALLER: Well, I don't know. I think you could. I think you control America, and that's good. I think at the very least, you ought to be able to control the Republican nominees. I mean, they're all beholden to you, they wouldn't be in power anyway.
RUSH: You may have a point, now that I think about it in that regard. You might. People don't believe this, but my staff would believe me when I say, I walk around here with such humility, you would not believe it. They're all laughing because they know it's true. Okay, so, you know, I'm thinking you may have a good point here in the sense that what you're asking for is somebody to stand up and say, "Would you guys stop acting like kids and start talking about the issues that are going to get us elected president: taxes, immigration, the future of the country and so forth, and stop all this stuff." That's the kind of thing you want me to say?
CALLER: You got it. We need a referee, Rush.
If you read this section and the entire transcript, you can see how Limbaugh executes some of his style. He:
  • Digs at Huckabee, but not at Romney. 
  • Compliments the caller, says he'll do something about it, but doesn't follow up. 
  • Accepts the caller's statement that he [Rush] is an influential person, but also plays up his humility. 
Here's an example of his rhetoric in 2012, another presidential election where he remained officially neutral in the GOP primaries:
Newt Gingrich is making it clear that he is proud of this country and its history, of our culture, the idea of American exceptionalism.  My point is here, nobody ought to be shocked to learn that a Republican who is articulating conservatism proudly, competently, confidently, articulately, nobody should be surprised that that person is nearing the top of the heap.
His tacit support of Gingrich continued here and here, where Gingrich got the only compliment in an overview of a debate, which was: "That's lighting dynamite and throwing it in a crowd of liberals. Oh, I know it's a hundred percent true."

How did he feel about the other candidates? I'll just end with this from Limbaugh's website:


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