The controversy over talk show king Rush Limbaugh’s sexually-insulting and innuendo-filled three day rant against Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke for her advocacy of health plan coverage for contraceptives was ... no fluke.
Limbaugh is the 21st century’s most powerful talk show host. He spawned Rush wannabes on local talk radio stations who can’t duplicate Limbaugh’s success since they don’t have his broadcasting smarts and talent. He became the Republican Party’s de facto strategist after Senator John McCain’s 2008 Presidential defeat, and the GOP has increasingly merged its brand into his.
Now, as Limbaugh loses sponsors and some radio stations, the GOP brand is likely to take a hit with women voters due to its leaders’ timidity in denouncing Limbaugh’s abusive and creepy comments about Fluke. Conservative columnist George Will flatly said: “Republican leaders are afraid of Rush Limbaugh. They want to bomb Iran, but they’re afraid of Rush Limbaugh.”
It was always perilous for a political party to be so closely linked to a talk show host. Political parties must aggregate interests and build coalitions. Talk show hosts must saw off a specific demographic and deliver it to advertisers. These two goals don’t necessarily converge. But Limbaugh wasn’t always a demonizer and polarizer.
When he went national in 1988, Limbaugh was truly funny. He sparked one controversy by talking about women “farding (putting on makeup) in cars.” He blasted then President George H. W. Bush, but once Bush invited him to sleep over in the Lincoln Bedroom, Limbaugh turned more supportive and serious. His show evolved into the Republican Party’s most important town hall where Limbaugh’s partisan perspective is heard and later repeated by listeners at dinner tables and on conservative weblogs. He successfully pushes hot buttons to motivate the GOP’s base to get out and vote.
Limbaugh’s defenders liken what he did to Fluke with liberal talker Ed Shultz calling conservative Laura Ingraham a “bitch” in May. It’s a phony comparison. Schultz gave an unconditional apology, called Ingraham to apologize and took time off without pay, then moved totally on. After the first day’s controversy, Limbaugh continued and escalated it for two more days. It was like he was saying, “I can say whatever I want any way I want and you can’t stop me!” He faced no consequences — until some advertisers started to flee.
Limbaugh’s first apology on his website seemed somewhat conditional. And once he got on the air again it continued to seem that way. He suggested the controversy was only over “two words.” (It was over more than that). And he said he erred by descending to the left’s level. (The left made him do it.) In the space of a week Limbaugh went from being a de facto symbol of the 2012 Republican Party to being pointed to by critics as the embodiment of the late 20th century’s phrase: “male chauvinist pig.”
Loyal conservative bloggers vilified Fluke by making suggestions about her sex life that will make some libel lawyer drool. Some bloggers are scrambling to find things to discredit her, but any findings can’t negate Limbaugh’s three-day attack. Others are blasting companies that pulled ads from Limbaugh, trying to discredit them.
Limbaugh committed the same sin as the late Senator Joseph McCarthy of not knowing when to stop. Joseph Welch had this line that many feel deflated McCarthy: “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency?” In Limbaugh’s case, the key quote came from Carbonite’s CEO David Friend in announcing that his company would pull ads from Limbaugh’s show:
“No one with daughters the age of Sandra Fluke, and I have two, could possibly abide the insult and abuse heaped upon this courageous and well-intentioned young lady. Mr. Limbaugh, with his highly personal attacks on Miss Fluke, overstepped any reasonable bounds of decency. Even though Mr. Limbaugh has now issued an apology, we have nonetheless decided to withdraw our advertising from his show. We hope that our action, along with other advertisers who have already withdrawn their ads, will ultimately contribute to a more civilized public discourse.”
Mr. Friend, may I use the word? Ditto...