At a giddy Capitol Hill ceremony in December 1994, Rush Limbaugh was declared an honorary member of the 104th Congress, so grateful were its ascendant Republicans for the radio host's assistance in winning majorities of both houses. Limbaugh told the assembled members to remain "rock-ribbed devoted in almost a militant way to your principles." And indeed they did.
The ensuing years had their ups and downs for Limbaugh. Though his radio program continued to prosper, there was a divorce (his third), his arrest for "doctor shopping" to feed his prescription drug habit (including allegedly sending his housekeeper out to procure drugs for him -- so classy), and the development of a condition that left him almost deaf. But the biggest problem Limbaugh had was the success of the politicians he supported. With Republicans in control of all three branches of government from 2001 to 2007, Limbaugh found himself forced to defend the prevailing order, which is neither as compelling nor as fun as assaulting the powers that be.
But now with a new Democratic administration and Democratic majorities in Congress, Limbaugh is just where he wants to be -- on the outside, decrying the perfidy of the president and bullying fellow Republicans who fall out of line. And he's getting a big hand from President Barack Obama, who recently told congressional Republicans, "You can't just listen to Rush Limbaugh" if they want to accomplish anything. It might have seemed beneath the president of the United States to take a shot at a radio host. But rest assured, Obama knew just what he was doing.
At least one person couldn't figure it out, though. Demonstrating again the razor-sharp political acumen that served him so well last fall, John McCain couldn't fathom what Obama might be up to. "I don't know why he would do that. Mr. Limbaugh is a voice of a significant portion of our conservative movement in America," McCain said. "I don't know why that the president would take him on. He's part of the political landscape, and he plays a role."
Indeed he does play a role, but what McCain didn't grasp is that few things serve Obama's interest more than having Rush Limbaugh be the de facto leader of the Republican Party. And that is just what he is becoming.
It's happening for two reasons. First, there is a vacuum into which someone must move. Unlike in 1994, when Newt Gingrich spoke for the party, there is no elected official that all conservatives look to for leadership (Democrats are not exactly staying up nights worrying about the next brilliant strategy John Boehner will come up with). Second, there is a split in the conservative coalition Obama is doing everything he can to exacerbate. It's not between the economic conservatives and the social conservatives, or among groups wanting to put their pet issue on the top of the agenda. It's between the elite and the base.
And though he is "elite" in lots of important ways, Limbaugh wants to represent the Republican base, just as he always has. As Stephen Talbot wrote in a 1995 profile of Limbaugh:
Limbaugh's fans are not country club Republicans. They are Kmart conservatives who consider Rush one of them, even if he did make $25 million over the last two years. Their demographics excite strategists like Bill Kristol, who sees in Rush a way to expand the Republicans' base. "He's a populist figure," says Kristol. "The Republican Party has changed an awful lot from the days when George Herbert Walker Bush was the example of a Republican. Conservatism today represents the common sense of the American people."
These days, Bill Kristol is probably feeling a touch more ambivalent about Limbaugh, particularly since Kristol is among those being courted by the new president. That dinner Obama held just before taking office with leading conservative lights like Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, and George Will wasn't about reaching out to the ideological middle -- there's nothing moderate about most of the attendees. But all the assembled were creatures of Washington, who want nothing more than to know that they're insiders, privy to the skinny and known by those in the know.
And lately they have been holding their fire to a degree that seems downright weird to anyone who lived through the 1990s. Look what Fred Barnes wrote in the Weekly Standard: "For the foreseeable future, attacking Obama will be counterproductive for Republicans. He's both enormously popular and the bearer of moral authority as the first African-American president. So the idea is for Republicans to make Obama an ally by using his words, from the inaugural address and speeches and interviews, against Democrats and their initiatives in Congress." Not exactly a recommendation for take-no-prisoners political warfare.
When it comes to the president, the difference between the current situation and that of the 1990s is that the members of the conservative elite kind of like Obama. They don't think much of his policy agenda, but they appreciate that he reaches out to them, and they find him to be a reasonable fellow. In contrast, conservatives at all levels were united in their personal hatred of Bill Clinton. There are those who hate Obama -- the mad conspiracy theories of the campaign are still out there, burning just as hot in the hearts of some. But elite conservatives want nothing to do with them. When Limbaugh said of Obama, "I want him to fail," he was even criticized by the likes of William Bennett.
Obama has correctly surmised that while he can't persuade the Republican base to support him, they provide a useful foil for his pragmatic bipartisanship. If at the same time he can mute the opposition of the conservative opinion elite, his path can be smoothed considerably.
In that 1994 ceremony, Limbaugh implored the freshman Republicans who had just stormed Congress not to be captured by the insider Beltway culture, represented by "some female reporter" who might "come up to one of you and start batting her eyes and ask you to go to lunch." Down that road lay the desire to go along and get along, and the inevitable betrayal of true conservatism. Limbaugh sends the same message today, celebrating the fact that not a single House Republican voted for Obama's stimulus bill as though it were some kind of grand victory that will improve the lives of countless Americans.
It won't do that, of course, but it did show that Republicans know whose call to heed. Unlike the elite conservatives, Rush Limbaugh has followers, and he issues commands. Congressman Phil Gingrey of Georgia got a little taste of what it means for a Republican to speak ill of Rush, after he was quoted in the Politico as saying, "It's easy if you're Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh or even sometimes Newt Gingrich to stand back and throw bricks. You don't have to try to do what's best for your people and your party. You know you're just on these talk shows and you're living well and plus you stir up a bit of controversy and gin the base and that sort of that thing."
Limbaugh fans apparently responded by inundating his office with angry calls, leading Gingrey to issue a groveling apology, saying among other things, "Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Newt Gingrich, and other conservative giants are the voices of the conservative movement's conscience. Everyday, millions and millions of Americans -- myself included -- turn on their radios and televisions to listen to what they have to say, and we are inspired by their words and by their determination." A trip to the re-education camp presumably averted, Gingrey may now return to his regular duties of protecting fetuses and honoring the flag. But it will be an object lesson to others.
The marriage between the elite and the base was always a bit uneasy -- no one thinks Bill Kristol believes the earth is 6,000 years old, or that George Will has a gun collection. During the campaign, many of the elite conservatives grew uneasy with the turn their party was taking, particularly the enthusiasm for the plainly unqualified Sarah Palin among the party's base. (In case you were wondering, Palin will be back. Behold the political juggernaut that is SarahPAC, the new organization devoted to advancing the cause of Palinism, whatever that might be.) Populism is all well and good, so long as the populace being roused isn't dragging your party down the road to defeat.
Unfortunately for Republicans, that's just where Rush will lead them. With President Obama enjoying approval ratings in the 70s and conservatism indelibly discredited by the last eight years, the broad public doesn't have much appetite for the reactionary brew Limbaugh is selling, full of resentment and bluster and culture-war venom. Its day may come again. But not any time soon.