It takes some big numbers to measure Rush Limbaugh’s success — 20 million listeners, a $400 million contract. But the best index of Limbaugh’s effectiveness can be found in a much smaller figure, somewhere between a few dozen and a few hundred, which is the number of Democratic-party officials and liberal advocates who want to use the law to shut him up.
Limbaugh, now celebrating his 20th year as a national radio host, is single-handedly responsible for a movement on the part of some Democrats to revive the “Fairness Doctrine.” With origins in the earliest laws regulating radio, the Doctrine became, by the time a young Rush Limbaugh entered radio in the 1970s, a de facto ban on editorializing. Had the Reagan-era Federal Communications Commission not done away with it in the 1980s — it was a patently unconstitutional limit on the First Amendment rights of broadcasters — Limbaugh’s career would never have happened.
Which is exactly the world some Democrats would like to bring back. Just this week, the Democratic leadership of the House announced it will take no action on a bill by Indiana Republican Rep. Mike Pence that would write into law the ban on the Fairness Doctrine. And top Democrats, like Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the House and Richard Durbin, Dianne Feinstein, and John Kerry in the Senate, have made statements indicating they would like to see the Doctrine reinstated.
It’s just the latest effort to put a muzzle on Limbaugh and conservative talk radio. As early as 1993, when Limbaugh had been a national figure for just a few years, Democrats attempted to pass a “Hush Rush” bill that would have revived the Doctrine’s limitations on speech. That effort died when Republicans won the House and Senate in 1994. With no power to legislate Limbaugh out of existence, liberals turned to competing with him, investing great hope in Jim Hightower, Mario Cuomo, and other would-be hosts who might bring liberal radio to the fore. It didn’t work, and neither did their biggest effort ever — the creation of Air America, a liberal network that was supposed to end Limbaugh’s dominance.
So now, with Democrats once again controlling the House and Senate, we’re back to the Fairness Doctrine. And as wide-ranging and issue-oriented as this debate sometimes appears, it’s really all about one man: Rush Limbaugh. Every other conservative talk-show host today — Hannity, Ingraham, Levin, Bennett, every one of them — owes some significant part of his or her success to Limbaugh. Democrats know that all too well, and will apparently never stop trying to legislate the result they could not achieve in the marketplace.
Rush Limbaugh will surely receive lots of tributes on his 20th anniversary. But none will be more sincere than the liberal effort to put him out of business.