Sailing Away to Irrelevance: Rush Limbaugh & The Right’s Self-Destructive Dependency on The Media Machine
Nine months ago, Jaybird asked readers and contributors alike to take a stab at predicting the outcome of the then-burgeoning 2012 Presidential Campaign. My answer then stands today. (BTW, a big hat tip to the GOP for self-destructively going out of their way to make me look like fishing Kreskin.):
The economy will be slightly better than it is now, but not much. And though that should mean that the Republicans have a great shot at getting the White House they won’t. Their campaign will be forced to take aggressively hostile sounding positions on social issues that their base will be convinced is their key to victory but will turn off and irritate the center. Positions the candidate swore to when they tried to win the nomination will come back to kill him or her (Ha! No, seriously, him) as the general race heats up. The White House, on the other hand, will continue its current trend of presenting the President as a centrist – and will truly look like one in comparison.
I thought of this prediction yesterday as I was reading the fallout from Rush Limbaugh’s comments regarding the Sandra Fluke testimony. If you want a more thorough description of the whole affair, let me to direct you over to Russell’s splendid takedown over at Blinded Trials. However, I’d like to look at this issue from a slightly larger perspective. Because I think this teacup maelstrom is the best microcosm of the difficulties facing the Right in general and the GOP in particular that I have seen since I penned the above nine months ago.
If you have yet to be introduced to the hubbub, the pertinent facts are as follows:
When the controversy surrounding the mandatory inclusion of contraception in federal healthcare plans hit earlier this month, the House Oversight committee held hearings on the matter. The committee, which is chaired by Republican Darrell Issa of California, was criticized by Democrats on two points: The first was that witnesses that had been called by Democrat committee members were not allowed to speak and give testimony. The second was that despite the issue at hand being a woman’s health issue, the five religious leaders that were called to testify were all men.
Sandra Fluke was a called witness that Issa would not let speak. A Georgetown law student, it appears that she was called by Democrats because she was thought to be likable, articulate, passionate, and – being a young woman who is simultaneously not fully employed and highly successful – a good “face” to put on this issue. Not taking no for an answer, Nancy Pelosi called Fluke to give the testimony she had planned to give to the Oversight Committee at a hearing of the House Steering Committee. Fluke gave testimony, arguing (obviously) in favor of the inclusion of contraception in federal healthcare plans.
This week, Rush Limbaugh raised eyebrows when, discussing Fluke’s testimony, he said the following:
“What does it say….that she essentially says that she must be paid to have sex. What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right?It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex, she can’t afford the contraception.”
The day after he said this he essentially doubled down, saying:
“So Miss Fluke and the rest of you feminazis, here’s the deal. If we are going to pay for your contraceptives and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.”
Which if you’re just hearing about this now pretty much brings you up to speed.
I’m going to hold off declaring outrage at Rush’s comments. Partially because Russell has already said everything I would have said only better, and partially because – this being Limbaugh – it’s a little hard to actually be “outraged.” When your mother drops the f-bomb in the grocery store check out line, it’s shocking. When the guy down the block that everyone knows has Tourette’s does it, it kind of starts coming off as a “meh…” after a while. For me, however, the whole episode kind of wraps up all the GOP’s problems today in a nutshell. (Or, perhaps more precisely, maybe it wraps them up in a round, flat plastic dispenser that comes with twenty one white pills and seven pink ones.)
In the late 90s through the early and mid 00s, the GOP found that it could increase both number of voters and voter passion by aligning itself with a media machine that was initially created to build ratings from shock value. The wide success and popularity of conservative talk radio hosts in general, and of Limbaugh in particular, had already been widely acknowledged as the force that had delivered the house to the Republicans in ’94. Republican heavy hitters as well as Righty wanna be-s began to find that their success in the polls was often directly related to their exposure on these shows, where they were treated as mythic folk heroes. The advent of FOX News took that trend and increased it exponentially with TV coverage. The GOP found, much to its delight, that by using the segment of the media that it controlled, it could continually rally its base and win elections without dealing with the traditional difficulties of having to sell superior policy proposals. Rather than giving detailed stances on what they might do in power, they were instead able to focus on demonizing the opposition to self-selected media people that neither asked them to clarify their own plans or ever questioned the claims about their opponents. In a world as hard and difficult as politics, the GOP found a way to make everything easy.
But, as Terry Pratchett has oft said, the problem with the easy way is that eventually it makes everything so damn hard.
The media business model the Right chose to embrace was based on the shock-radio model. An inherent flaw with this type of model is that while it leads to quick ratings and advertising profits, it can be difficult to sustain. If you spend one week calling the President a liar and an idiot, it’s not going to be long before calling him a lying idiot isn’t really all that shocking. You have to continually push just a little bit more as you go, or risk being irrelevant in the shock-media world. This started happening in the 00s, with the rise into the mainstream of people such an Ann Coulter and Mark Levine. At first you could tell that the rank and file of the right were aware that their envelope was being pushed, but their response was usually some form of the following: “Yeah, Coulter is a little nutty when she says that Democrats actually want the terrorists to kill US citizens, but it’s OK because when she says it it really bothers the liberals.” And so, as time went on and claims became more and more outrageous, the excuse that if things bothered liberals it was OK grew within both the media machine and its base.
Somewhere along the line, however, this model has to break down – partly because you eventually reach a ceiling where the base that believes the ever-increasingly shocking claims is small enough to make the party you’re backing politically irrelevant, and partly because to those that aren’t part of the machine or the base you begin to look increasingly out of touch. Birtherism is a fairly good example of this ceiling being reached, as are the Death Panels and Obama/Hitler youth programs. Unfortunately for the Right, however, once you tie yourself and your success so inexorably to the machine it becomes almost impossible to untangle yourself from it. Back in 2009, a number of GOP elected and appointed officials were at different times critical of some particularly outrageous statements by Limbaugh in front of the press. And each time they have quickly been forced by both the machine and the base to publicly grovel their apologies, the most notably being a sitting RNC Chair.
Which brings me back to Sandra Fluke and her testimony.
Over in Russell’s threads, Tom pointed out that Fluke’s testimony in front of the Steering Committee was both a piffle and a political media photo-op created by the Democrats. He is, of course, 100% correct. But here’s the thing: that same point is just as true of Darrell Issa calling six conservative religious leaders to testify in front of the Oversight Committee. Both Pelosi and Issa were simply engaging in political media showmanship. And, I would like to add, there’s nothing at all wrong with that. But the way the right has shown up on radars of the voters in an election year is telling:
If the controlling party of the US House of Representatives calls five witnesses to testify about what is seen as a women’s health issue – at a photo-op event they themselves have created to score political points in an election year – and all five are men, then one of three things has occurred: One is that the GOP was not able to find one single woman of note that would testify on their behalf – even a Republican woman. The second is that they have become so insulated in their machine that it never occurred to them to call a woman to testify about a woman’s health issue. The third is that they knew they would alienate women voters, but decided since it would irritate their peers across the aisle it would be totally worth it. In any case, this makes it looks very, very bad for their hopes to recapture the White House. Remember, this was not a “lamestream media gotcha moment,” this was the stacked-deck media circus they gleefully planned and broadcast to the world.
And as bad as that sideshow is going to be for them with the female vote come November, it’s nothing compared to the damage Limbaugh did immediately after.
As it happens, I have a lot of friends that have worked over the years on local and national GOP campaigns. And I can tell you, there isn’t one of them that wouldn’t have groaned aloud had Limbaugh said what he had were they working a presidential campaign today. In fact, I guarantee you that in some hotel room over at the Romney camp, staffers have been debating the need to have Romney say publicly that he disagrees with Limbaugh so that they might have a shot at the general, vs. the need to have Romney say nothing so as not to lose the primary. (If the past nine months is any indication at all, the Romney camp will opt to appear to be with Rush today – while trying hard not to say so directly – and then take their lumps and claim they were against Rush all along when the general comes around.)
I’d like you to take a step back, for a moment, and try to picture a similar scenario happening with the Democrats today. Imagine, if you will, that tomorrow while giving a speech at NOW Tina Fey were to say that of course Chris Brown hits women, because he’s a black man and that’s just what those n**gers do. Or if you prefer, imagine that Chris Rock, while doing a DNC fundraiser, talked for a while about how if we wanted to clean up Wall Street, we needed to take a lesson from Bernie Madoff and get all of the the Jews out since all those greedy bastards care about is money.
How do you believe that Dems would react to such a statement from a “comedian?” Can you really not picture one Dem, either in a position of institutional power or an elected official, feeling that they would not lose their job to criticize such a statement? Even if you imagine Obama himself not making a statement, can you imagine that the White House when asked (as they most surely would be) would not choose to at least say something along the lines of, “Chris and Tina are of course funny people, but the President did feel they stepped out of bounds when they said X?”
The people behind the people in the GOP aren’t idiots. They know perfectly well that this whole battle on contraception is going to kill them in a few months; they certainly know that the Right’s most visible pundits lamely and uncomfortably trying to rally around Limbaugh is especially bad news for them. What does it say about today’s GOP, then, that even though they know this they feel so resigned to letting it unfold as it is anyway?
For a while now the Right has held tight to the belief that if the ratings are high and whatever you do pisses off other people, you must be doing something right. And in a way, they are correct: Battling contraception and calling women that are on the pill sluts that should have to be taped having sex so they can whack to it does indeed increase ratings, and it does indeed piss off other people. So they’ve got those things down pat.
What it doesn’t do is win elections, contribute to the dialogue we should be having, or make your party particularly relevant. But for what it’s worth, I understand that Obama is thankful. So there’s that.