When Robert Gibbs singled out Rush Limbaugh for criticism at a press briefing Monday, he was being unfair—not to Limbaugh but to the hundreds of right-wing talk-radio hosts who ride the airwaves every morning. After all, they want Obama to fail, too. They just don’t have the same PR.
They also choose their words a little more carefully. “I say on my show, ‘I hope he fails in a number of initiatives,’ ” says Lars Larson, a talk-radio host based in Portland, Ore. “But I don’t want him to fail as president. Redistribution of income, socialized medicine—I want him to fail on those things … whereas Rush wants Obama to fail, period.”
Nationally syndicated host Mark Levin is also careful to separate the man and his policies. “I want my country to succeed,” he says. “But it cannot succeed under his policies. So if I root for his policies, then I’m rooting against liberty, free enterprise, national security. Why would I want to be against those things?” That said, Levin adds, “I think he’s failing exceptionally well.”
Other hosts believe Rush’s words were twisted and have been saying so on-air. “What Rush said is very clear,” says Scott Hennen, a North Dakota radio host once dubbed “the Limbaugh of the Prairie.” “He wants everybody to succeed, wants America to succeed. But if the policies espoused by this president succeed, he believes more people will be unemployed and in economic harm. Therefore he doesn’t want these policies to succeed.” (Not quite: See the transcript of Limbaugh on Sean Hannity’s show here.)
When it comes down to it, Levin argues, the question—Do you want Obama to succeed?—is unfair. “Does Obama want conservatism to succeed?” he says. “Because I think he’s advancing a hard left agenda that many of us reject, just as he rejects our agenda.”
The hosts also bristled at the notion—expressed recently and then retracted by RNC Chairman Michael Steele—that Limbaugh is just “an entertainer.” “A talk-radio host attracts an audience three ways: content, content, and content,” says Levin. “If you’re just a song-and-dance guy, you’re not gonna have an audience.” For example, he said, “Tim Kaine is an entertainer.”
“Obviously radio has to be entertaining to be successful—something the Democrats at Air America don’t get,” says Larson. But Limbaugh is more than that: “He’s very much an educator. He informs people.” Steve Gill, a host based in Nashville, pushes the education parallel: “Think back to who were your best teachers—they were informative and accurate and in most cases entertaining. Just because you’re entertaining in delivery of information, that doesn’t undercut the credibility of what you’re saying.”
Most of the hosts I spoke with dismissed the Steele-Limbaugh showdown as Democratic hype. But some see it as a legitimate indicator of intra-party strife. “Rush speaks for himself but he also articulates the views of millions of conservatives,” Phil Valentine, a radio host and author of The Conservative’s Handbook, wrote in an e-mail. “This is the problem. Republicans and conservatives are no longer synonymous. Republicans better get back to their conservative roots if they expect to win elections.”
But isn’t Limbaugh putting Republicans in a tough spot, one in which they must either distance themselves and risk alienating conservatives or embrace him and risk alienating moderates? “No,” says Larson, “I think a good politician should be able to say, ‘Yes, I agree with Rush’ or ‘No, I don’t.’ … Only if you’re unsure of your own positions” should it be a problem. “Ronald Reagan was never unsure of his own positions,” he adds.
I ask whether the Democrats have their own Rush Limbaugh. “Al Franken was trying and couldn’t compete,” says Larson. Hennen says it’s obvious: NPR, ABC, CBS, NBC, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. “They are the Rush of the left,” he says.
Plus, Gill argues, Limbaugh doesn’t have half the influence of the “drive-by” media. “When you’ve got Rahm Emanuel calling George Stephanopoulos and telling him the spin of the day … to me, that’s a bigger issue than a media guy influencing what people think,” he says. “You’ve never had Rush Limbaugh calling the White House and saying, ‘Here’s what you guys should say.’ “