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Jonah Goldberg / March 4, 2009

The Tired War on Rush Limbaugh

Here we go again. Rush Limbaugh is public enemy No. 1.

Liberal bloggers and media chin-strokers are aghast at Limbaugh’s statement that he hopes Barack Obama fails.

Well, given what Obama wants to do, I hope he fails too. Of course I want the financial crisis to end – who doesn’t? But Obama’s agenda is much more audacious. Pretty much every major news outlet in the country has said as a matter of objective analysis that Obama wants to repeal the legacy of Ronald Reagan and remake the country as a European welfare state. And yet people are shocked that conservatives, Limbaugh included, want Obama to fail in this effort?

What movie have they been watching? Because I could swear that opposing the expansion of big government is what conservatives do. It’s Aesopian. The scorpion must sting the frog. The conservative must object to socialized medicine.

Besides, since when did hoping for the failure of ideological agendas you disagree with become unpatriotic? Liberals were hardly treasonous when they hoped for the failure of George W. Bush’s Social Security privatization scheme.

Regardless, the war on Limbaugh from the left is a tired rehash. In 1995, Bill Clinton tried to blame the Oklahoma City bombing on Rush. In 2002, then-Sen. Tom Daschle, the leader of the Democratic opposition, claimed that Limbaugh’s listeners weren’t “satisfied just to listen.” They were a violent threat to decent public servants like him.

In just the last month, Obama suggested that Republicans were in thrall to Rush. White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel has anointed him the GOP’s leader. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., complained that Republicans didn’t give Obama enough standing ovations during his recent address to Congress because they are afraid of Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.

Does anyone really think that Republicans, absent fear of Limbaugh’s lash, would be throwing flower petals at Obama’s feet as he sells the Great Society II? If that’s true, I say thank goodness for Limbaugh’s lash.

Just because the Democrats’ shtick is old and often dishonest doesn’t mean it’s tactically dumb. Limbaugh and other right-wing talkers are popular with a third of the country. Fairly or not, they turn off moderates and self-described independents (and, for the left, conservative talk radio is the font of all evil). Most politicians would prefer to have 70 percent of the public on their side at the cost of losing 30 percent, even if that requires being less than fair to the 30 percent.

The more interesting war on Limbaugh comes from the right. My National Review colleague John Derbyshire has written a thoughtful article for the American Conservative disparaging the “lowbrow conservatism” of talk radio. His brush is a bit too broad at times. Some right-wing talkers, such as Bill Bennett and Dennis Prager, can be almost professorial. Michael Savage, meanwhile, sounds like the orderlies are about to break through the barricaded studio door with sedatives in hand. Derbyshire is nonetheless right that conservatism is top-heavy with talk-radio talent, sometimes giving the impression the right is deficient in other areas and adding to the shrillness of public discourse.

Another point of attack comes from “reformist” conservative writers, such as blogger Ross Douthat of The Atlantic and former Bush speechwriter David Frum. They argue that conservatism is too attached to talk-show platitudes and Reagan kitsch. They want conservatives and Republicans to become more entrepreneurial, less reflexively opposed to government action. Hence, the New Reformers object to Limbaugh’s role as an enforcer of ideological conformity. What’s good for Limbaugh, many of them argue, guarantees that the GOP will become a powerless rump party only for conservative true believers.

I’m dubious about that, but I do have a suggestion that would help on both fronts. Bring back “Firing Line.” William F. Buckley Jr., who died almost a year ago, hosted the program for PBS for 33 years. He performed an incalculable service at a time when conservatives were more associated with yahoos than they are today. He demonstrated that intellectual fluency and good manners weren’t uniquely liberal qualities. More important, the “Firing Line” debates (models of decorum) demonstrated that conservatives were unafraid to examine their own assumptions or to battle liberal ones.

As Democrats try to ram through the “remaking of America” (Obama’s words) by exploiting a financial crisis, we need those debates. PBS could actually live up to its mandate to educate and inform the public. It would be the kind of entrepreneurial government innovation even right-wingers could get behind.

© 2009 Tribune Media Services, Inc. 

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