Rush Limbaugh: Political Analyst

Series Introduction:

Once upon a time, more than 20 years ago, I wrote a book about Rush Limbaugh. I’d followed his career as he’d as he’d risen from relative obscurity to the biggest thing, literally and figuratively, on the radio and the de facto voice of the Republican right. For many years the Boss of the Republican party, as Keith Olbermann used to call him. The rise of right-wing media in general has meant he has much less influence these days but he has remained the top-rated commercial radio talk-show all these years.

My book, which was titled simply “Anti-Rush”, was written in the mid-’90s, when he’d been at the height of his power and influence. It was never published and, in fact, never finished but I spent a few years on it and it was a pretty big one. Unfortunately, I lost most of it (and a lot of other things) in a computer crash. I still have part of it, material that survived on some old quarter-inch floppies. They’re gone now too, along with some of their content, which was lost in subsequent years. I posted some material from my Limbaugh project on my News Reviews blog on what must have been a slow day back in 2015 and over the years, I’ve posted bits and pieces of it, including what I’m about to put up here, in other places around the internet. Eventually, I’ll probably put up everything from the book that survives in any sort of readable form. Why not, right?

Some general notes: In the text, “TWTOTB” refers to Limbaugh’s ghost-writer’s first book, “The Way Things Ought To Be” and “SITYS” to his second, “See, I Told You So.” When this was written, Limbaugh had moved into late-night television, a show that ran for four years and probably ended right around the same time as work on my own book (I don’t exactly remember). In some instances, I’ve straightened out some bad sentence structure — left unattended, it calls to me in the night — but I’ve mostly resisted the urge to clean up the text, which is the unfinished work of a much younger writer. There are, unfortunately, no footnotes — the cleaned-up, completed version is lost forever — but at least most of the time-and-place data for the Limbaugh comments, which would have ended up in the footnotes, are cited in the text. I apologize in advance for the way this can bog down the text with multiple “on his radio show”, “on his television show”, etc.:

Observers who are unaware of him could be forgiven if, upon being exposed to Rush Limbaugh for the first time, they mistook him for a Marxist caricature of a conservative capitalist, a satire. To draw an audience, he adopts a sort of populist pose but because his populist stylings are just an empty pose, there’s no consistency in it. Limbaugh’s views are class-based, in a way any commie would eat for breakfast and seeing the GOP as the best vehicle for enacting policy based on them, he’s a die-hard Republican party man.

In Limbaugh’s universe, “Republicans vs. Democrats” is treated as good vs. bad. The only time Republicans are less than good is when, in his view, they’re not conservative enough. The only time Democrats are any better than bad is when they’re conservative. This structure — this fairy-tale — is his standard narrative and when engaged in political analysis, he molds the details to fit it, rather than offering a narrative shaped by those details. In order to maintain his overarching narrative in the face of changing circumstances, he freely abandons his own prior analysis for new ones that are often the exact opposite and then switches back again. His political analysis is a study in contradiction.

Limbaugh spent a great deal of time in TWTOTB writing about the nature of politics and elections. For example, he asserted:

“The real debate about where this country should be headed takes place every four years when we vote for president.”

On congress:

“Congress isn’t supposed to set day-to-day policy in our system of government… It is supposed to write laws that have broad applications and that set down the parameters within which the President can carry out his policies”

Of the Democratic-controlled congress:

“They have ignored the people’s will on countless occasions and dismissed the fact that the voters have endorsed conservative policies in three presidential elections. People are not fools when it comes to electing a President. People know that election is a defining one. They study the candidates and they care about their decisions. They don’t do that very often with elections for Congress.”

Events subsequent to the publication of TWTOTB led Limbaugh to consign the whole of this analysis to a Memory Hole and to advance a new one that contradicted the previous one in almost every particular. The first of these events was the election of Democrat Bill Clinton as president. Suddenly the idea of the president as the embodiment of where voters wish to send the country didn’t sound so appealing. The second was the Republican seizure of both houses of congress in 1994. Suddenly, Limbaugh decided this was one of those occasions when the decision about what direction the government should take was made in a congressional election and that it was the duty of congress to “set day-to-day policy,” to the extent that he repeatedly declared the President had been made “irrelevant” by congress.

Clinton was, of course, elected by a significantly larger number of Americans than later elected the Republican majority in congress but for two years of the Clinton administration, Limbaugh began each episode of his show by describing the state of affairs under that presidency as “America Held Hostage.” When, in 1994, Republicans gained control of congress in a sparsely attended off-year election, he dubbed the campaign “Operation Restore Democracy” and proclaimed it a success. Then, as the subsequent “Republican Revolution” got underway, he began to open his program with “America: The Way It Ought To Be.”

Limbaugh couldn’t quite decide why Republicans won in 1994. At first, he was clear on what had happened. On his television show the day after the elections, Limbaugh said of the results, “It was a total repudiation of one man — Bill Clinton — a total repudiation of his policies and where he wants to take this country… The Clinton agenda is dead. The people didn’t want it.” The notion that the vote was essentially a negative reaction against a much-demonized Clinton administration was close to the truth. Republicans then had to govern though, and this required Limbaugh, their mouthpiece whom congressional Republicans eventually made an honorary member of the Republican “class” of 1994, to change his analysis. Soon, he was saying the public hadn’t voted negatively after all. Indeed, he maintained, it had given Republicans that most mythical of all political beasts: a Mandate For Change. On his TV show (1–17–95), he said: “Go back to the campaign. The Republicans campaigned expressly and exclusively on substantive issues, the Contract with America.” He added that Republicans could have gone negative but didn’t: “[They] took the high road and stuck straight to issues.” On his radio show in May 1995, Limbaugh said of the Republican candidates:

“They had plenty of negatives on Clinton, and they could’ve just run against the President but they didn’t do that. They came up with an agenda of things that they said defined them. ‘This is who we are. This is what we believe. This is what we’re for. This is what we’re going to do.’ It’s called the Contract with America. It gave people a reason to vote in the affirmative and I firmly believe people want to vote for ideas, for people, not against.”

This portrait of principled conservative Republicans boldly eschewing readily available sleaze in favor of real issues bore, of course, little resemblance to the actual 1994 congressional campaigns, wherein the most popular RNC canned ad used by Republican candidates all over the country was one in which the face of their Democratic opponent morphed into that of Bill Clinton. Nor, more importantly, is it a fact that voters cast their ballots in any significant number in response to the Contract With America, either pro or con. Exit polling showed that fewer than 12% of voters from either side had ever even heard of the Contract. A Time/CNN poll taken immediately after the election asked “Which is most responsible for the Republican victories in Congress?” Half the respondents chose “voter disapproval of Clinton’s job as President.” Only 12% cited “voter support for Republican programs.” As a caller on Limbaugh’s own show noted (in March 1995), even as late as five months after the election, a plurality of the public, 47%, were still telling a USA Today poll they’d never heard of the Contract.

At this point, a further word about the 1994 elections seems appropriate. One of the longstanding trends in American politics is that the party in the White House always loses seats in the midterm congressional elections. In the Republican takeover of congress, fully 92% of incumbents were reelected — hardly the “revolution” Limbaugh and various other commentators described. Turnout was low and exit polling showed that nearly half of those voting Republican were simply voting against the incumbent. As often happens in off-year elections, a small but well-organized, heavily financed and active minority was, due to low voter turnout, able to exert a sufficiently disproportionate influence to swing the overall outcome. As Limbaugh pointed out on his radio program only weeks before the “revolution,” (Sept. 26, 1994), “Out-year elections, the party in power always loses.”

Limbaugh knew this before the election. After, he embraced the fantasy that those elections represented a public mandate for the reactionary policies of the newly-minted Republican majority. He quickly began using this as a bludgeon against opponents of those policies, portraying any dissent as an attack on the public and on the notion of democracy itself. On his radio show (March 2, 1995), he said “That’s what the election last year was all about; the people having a say in what happens to them.” Responding to Democratic criticism that the Republican agenda in congress was extremist, Limbaugh said (radio show, Feb. 1995):

“…these people are telling the American people — they’re not just talking about Republicans in Washington in Congress — when they talk about those Republicans in Washington in Congress, they’re talking about the people that the American people voted for and elected, so Algore, whether he knows it or not, is insulting everybody when he says these people [Republicans in Congress] are extremists. And most people are not extremists and they don’t take kindly to being called extremists.”

On his radio show (September 25, 1995), Limbaugh was still stating that liberal congressmen, by opposing Republican policies in the 104th Congress, “are also insulting the people who voted for them, which is far more people than voted for the Democrats the last time around. They are engaging in a very risky strategy here by insulting the very people who made all this happen — the voters — which is what liberals have always done. They’ve just gotten away with it up until now.” This concern for democracy was, of course, nowhere in evidence during the previous Democratic-controlled congresses, which, though they were elected by larger (and usually significantly larger) margins than the 104th Congress, were nevertheless subjected to unrelenting criticism on his program. It certainly wasn’t there when Limbaugh characterized the rule of the president and congress elected two years earlier as “America Held Hostage.”

Speaking of which, Limbaugh can’t get Clinton straight twice running. He has repeatedly expressed his outrage with Clinton for governing against the popular will. On his radio show (Feb. 1, 1995), he said:

“To say he [Clinton] went against the tide is nothing new. He’s always done that, from his first initiative — gays in the military — to that massive health care plan. He’s always been at odds with the American people. Don’t forget. I was one of the first to point out to you that I have never seen an administration which is attempting to govern against the will of the people as much as this one has. In my lifetime, I’ve never seen an administration which is so hell-bent on going against the will of the American people, but this one is.”

Later that same year, public discontent with the policies of the congressional Republicans quickly grew into a festering hatred. Polling information from all the major news outlets was pouring in showing that huge majorities were opposed to every major Republican policy initiative. An ABC News/Washington Post poll less than three months after Republicans assumed control of congress asked, “Are Republicans doing what you want?” Only 35% said yes, while an overwhelming 62% said no. The same poll showed similar majorities, from 57%-77%, in opposition to what Republicans were putting forward on tax policy and welfare reform. Nowhere, though, was public opposition to these policies stronger than in the area of environmental protection. A Harris poll from August is typical of public reaction. Only tiny minorities favored less strict regulation of toxic waste disposal (2%), water pollution (4%), air pollution (7%), and wetlands (15%). Republicans had tried to weaken protection in each of these areas but between 52% and 80% of respondents said they actually favored stricter regulation in regard to each. And 60% said they opposed the efforts of the Republicans to limit the powers of the EPA. At this point, Limbaugh’s outrage against those attempting to govern against the will of the public not only disappeared, he did a complete back-flip on the subject and began urging Republicans to ignore the public. In October, he advised “It’s time to stay bold. It’s time to ignore the polls.”

And when it comes to this sort of thing, Clinton just can’t win. On his radio show (164), Limbaugh commented on a news item about what he considered an excessive amount of money spent by the Clinton administration on polling:

“You, me, most of us… have principles, and it is their principles that guide their beliefs and it is those beliefs that guide their desires. Those beliefs and desires guide the way people go about achieving what they want, and when a person is firmly rooted in principle, it’s easy to spot. They’re consistent. You know exactly what they stand for. You know exactly what their objectives are — they tell you. Rudolph Giuliani is a name who comes to mind, a recent politician… You can see that Rudolph Giuliani is a man firmly rooted to his principles. You could say that about Reagan. Now, you might disagree with them, as I know some people did, but you knew what Reagan stood for… You may disagree with it all day long but you knew what he stood for.”

He recalled that during the 1992 campaign, he implored Clinton’s supporters to call and “name one thing for me that this man has stated that you want him in the White House to do. They couldn’t. Nobody could… All this time, nobody could specify what Bill Clinton stood for. To this day, you can’t really specify what Bill Clinton stands for.” He continued:

“This has bugged me. It’s bugged me that so few people cared, so few people seemed to notice that there were no guiding principles here. Well, this story explains why: there are no guiding principles. There are only focus groups.”

This analysis, which Limbaugh has offered repeatedly, flatly contradicts most of his other commentary about Clinton, wherein he portrays the president as, instead, a committed ideologue. On hundreds of occasions, he’s described Clinton with phrases like “hard-nosed ultra-liberal” and even “socialist” and has spent hour upon hour detailing why he thinks they’re appropriate. This version of Clinton, the one spun by Limbaugh virtually every day, has shown a fierce, unwavering dedication to his alleged liberal principles over all other things. The reality of Bill Clinton, essentially a conservative opportunist, is nowhere to be found in Limbaugh’s commentary.

Limbaugh condemns Clinton for ruling against the will of the people while also condemning him for allegedly ruling by polls, in accordance with the will of the public. He praises congressional Republicans who come to power during the off-year elections he’d earlier dismissed for ruling in accordance with the will of the people and goes so far as to say criticizing them amounts to an attack on the people who elected them, then, as the public clearly opposes their agenda, urges those same Republicans to be “bold” by ignoring the will of the public. He says the public makes the real decision about where it wants the country to go during presidential elections, then when the public chooses Clinton, treats it as “America Held Hostage.” Clinton stands condemned both for being solid in his convictions and for not having any convictions.

This is what passes for political analysis in Limbaugh-World, a place where the sky must be a very different color indeed.

— j.

Other pieces of the Limbaugh book:

Rush Limbaugh: Plagiarist

Rush Limbaugh: An Economic Interpretation

Writer, radical, filmmaker, cinemarchaeologist, Cinema Cult ringmaster.