Full disclosure: Rush Limbaugh is a friend and benefactor of this magazine, as he was a friend of its founder. He has sometimes written for us. That friendship has, however, never prevented him from expressing disagreement with our writers when he felt it appropriate, or vice versa. The controversies of recent weeks, largely ginned up by Democrats, provide us with another opportunity to express both our friendship and our occasional disagreement.
The Democrats are trying to place Republicans in a bind by giving them a false choice: They can “kowtow” to Limbaugh, or they can denounce him as outside the realm of legitimate political discourse. If they choose the former course, they will appear weak. If they choose the latter one, they will offend conservatives and cripple their own ability to dissent from liberalism. Republicans should not play this game.
Limbaugh is not the Republican party’s leader, a role for which he would be ill-suited and which he has not expressed interest in filling. (If he were the party’s leader, John McCain would not have been its presidential nominee last year.) His views are not extreme and his manner is not, for that matter, particularly angry. (If people liked listening to partisan thuggery on the airwaves, Al Franken would have been a more successful radio host.) To address some recent smears: He did not compare Obama to Stalin, and he did not say he was rooting against the economy or the country. There are voices in American politics that should be assiduously marginalized and given no respect: the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers; the Klan. What is going on here is a scurrilous attempt to place Limbaugh in their company.
The mere fact that Michael Steele, the Republican chairman, criticized Limbaugh was not objectionable. He could have made any number of criticisms without necessitating an apology. But to call Limbaugh’s show “ugly” — and worse, to make no protests while a CNN interviewer compared Republicans to Nazis — was gross. Steele fell right into the Democratic trap: He could either continue to stand by his calumny or give Democrats an opening to describe him as afraid of Limbaugh. In sticking by his remarks, Steele made the right choice, but he should not have placed himself in a position to have to make it.
All of the above said, some of Limbaugh’s recent remarks have struck us as unwise. Reacting to complaints about Bobby Jindal’s response to the State of the Union last week, Limbaugh slighted the importance of delivery — even though his own career is a testament to the importance of expressing ideas well. In his remarks to the Conservative Political Action Committee over the weekend, he said that now was not the time for conservatives to advance “better policy ideas” than those coming from President Obama. On his show he later explained that he meant that Republicans mostly need to fight Obama at the higher level of principle. But the two go hand in hand: When Limbaugh himself, just a few weeks ago, advanced a clever alternative to Obama’s stimulus, what was he doing but showing how conservative principles can be applied to improve the American condition?
Limbaugh spoke critically of those who want conservatives to adapt their message to changing times, or to appeal to subsets of the population such as “Wal-Mart voters” or “female independents.” But successful political movements always alter their approaches as circumstances change, even if they maintain the same principles, just as Reagan agreed with the Goldwater of 1964 but did not run on his platform. Reagan also courted the voters who became known as “the Reagan Democrats” — a sociologically identifiable subset of the population. He advocated policies that would benefit middle-income voters and people who had not previously considered themselves Republicans, and explained how they would do so. If today’s Republicans were to do the same thing, would Limbaugh object?
We doubt it. His real concern, it seems to us, is that some people may attempt to water down conservative principles in the name of adaptation and the pursuit of popularity. But that is no reason to neglect the importance of building a popular conservatism that speaks to today’s concerns. It is a task to which Limbaugh can contribute greatly, as he has done for two decades.
The Democrats, meanwhile, think their attacks on Limbaugh are helping them politically. We understand that it is difficult to devise solutions to the financial crisis. But the Democrats won the election, and it is their job to come up with such solutions. We wish they spent as much time on it as they have spent in recent weeks talking about Limbaugh.