The Limbaugh Problem: A Conservative Laments
The David Frum cover story in Newsweek, “Why Rush is Wrong,” begins with the names he is being called by conservative talk show host Mark Levin; names like “a-hole,” “jerk” and “putz.” Of course, like Limbaugh, Levin is a talk show host whose job it is to entertain and get ratings. Next, Frum offers his extensive conservative bona fides and paints a picture of the differences between Limbaugh, who wishes he were the head of the Republic Party (and Republicans refuse to renounce that notion) and Barack Obama, who is, by nature of his job, head of the Democratic Party.
On the one side, the president of the United States: soft-spoken and conciliatory, never angry, always invoking the recession and its victims. This president invokes the language of “responsibility,” and in his own life seems to epitomize that ideal: He is physically honed and disciplined, his worst vice an occasional cigarette. He is at the same time an apparently devoted husband and father. Unsurprisingly, women voters trust and admire him.
And the other side?
A man who is aggressive and bombastic, cutting and sarcastic, who dismisses the concerned citizens in network news focus groups as “losers.” With his private plane and his cigars, his history of drug dependency and his personal bulk, not to mention his tangled marital history, Rush is a walking stereotype of self-indulgence-exactly the image that Barack Obama most wants to affix to our philosophy and our party. And we’re cooperating! Those images of crowds of CPACers cheering Rush’s every rancorous word-we’ll be seeing them rebroadcast for a long time.
The worse conservatives do, the more important Rush is; the more mainstream they become, the more Rush is marginalized. Frum then says Limbaugh is to Republicans now what Jesse Jackson was to Democrats in the ’80’s: they wanted to offer him respect for what he represented, but not have him be the face of the party. But this all helps Obama. As Frum puts it, the real beneficiaries here are Limbaugh, Obama, and Democrats, and Republicans come up short: “Limbaugh gets an audience, Obama gets a target and Republicans get the blame.” And what the Republican leadership that refuses to distance itself from Limbaugh doesn’t get is how generally unpopular he is.
Rush Limbaugh is a seriously unpopular figure among the voters that conservatives and Republicans need to reach. Forty-one percent of independents have an unfavorable opinion of him, according to the new NEWSWEEK Poll. Limbaugh is especially off-putting to women: his audience is 72 percent male, according to Pew Research.
Republicans, as Frum points out, are trying to run a country that no longer exists. Even Newt Gingrich acknowledges we’re at the end of the Reagan era. The set of problems facing the country are different now and require different solutions. But Limbaugh and conservative talk show hosts in general have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
Look at it this way: Rush has maybe 14.25 million weekly cume listeners according to Talkers magazine. That means 3 million-plus listeners a day. In other words, there are millions of people who don’t listen to him. In radio, a 10 share is enormous, something even Limbaugh doesn’t achieve in most markets. But even that number would mean 90% of radio listeners would be listening to something else, never mind the rest of the world that isn’t even listening to radio. To put it bluntly and accurately: We radio talk show hosts operate in relatively small universe. We’re not as important as we think we are. And we’re certainly not as important as those who think we’re important are.