From vs. Limbaugh

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

In the end, the controversy boils down to an argument of the moment versus one of the ages. Frum believes that conservatives have to change their message to appeal to new constituencies without which the Republican party will lose future elections. Limbaugh argues that conservatism’s message is not predicated on transitory appeals to particular groups, but rests on sound principles that, mutatis mutandis for new circumstances, don’t really change. Frum, the politico, wants to return to power and so make the necessary adjustments; Limbaugh, the talk-show host, would rather stay in the wilderness if it means forgoing principles.

I don’t see how Frum can win this argument, since he does not seem to understand the Limbaugh brief, which I think is something like the following:

Conservatism, to the degree it is failing, either has gotten off message (e.g., the mega-deficits of the irresponsible Republican Congress between 2001 and 2006, or the shamelessness of a Ted Stevens or Duke Cunningham or Larry Craig, or the inability of the Bush administration to convey to the public our aims and objectives in Iraq) or simply cannot communicate in an effective way why lower taxes, smaller government, individual freedom, muscular national defense, and traditional emphasis on the family and community are of interest to everyone, regardless of age, race, or class.

Accordingly, conservatism will return to prominence when it uses time-honored and unchanging free-market principles to address new problems, and when it finds advocates who both are adept at communication with non-traditional audiences (e.g., why it is in the interest of African-Americans to be skeptical of abortion on demand, why Hispanic small-business people need to be wary of intrusive regulations, why Asian-Americans should fear affirmative-action-driven de facto racial quotas at the University of California, why talented teachers should not have to join bureaucratic, ossified unions, why today’s young people should not have to pay off Obama’s annual $1.7 trillion deficits, etc.) and believe in their message’s resonance, without trimming[?] for the applause of the moment.

This all could be discussed in reasonable terms, but Frum unwisely chose to conflate the role of a political analyst and strategist with that of the nation’s premier talk-show host. The genre of talk radio hinges on entertainment — satire, invective, bombast, humor. A Limbaugh succeeds or fails not just by his ability to analyze politics (millions can do that), but by his acting ability, impersonations, ad hoc quips, and comedy, which hold an audience of 20 million for 15 hours a week (only a handful of people in the country can do that).

As a result of that confusion of genres, we get something incoherent like the analyst Frum, in ad hominem invective, decrying Limbaugh’s past problems with prescription drugs, three marriages, weight problems, cigar smoking, wealth, etc., as he weirdly accuses Limbaugh, the talk-show host par excellence, of resorting to ad hominem crudity in saying that Obama is using his biracial heritage to his advantage, and that it improperly shields him from normal scrutiny.

The other issues likewise weaken Frum’s case. Plenty of candidates, left and right, who are purported role models (in a way talk-show hosts need not be) have had divorces and admitted illicit drug use, smoke, and are not in top shape; the Democratic advocacy groups have had plenty of spokespeople, from the Daily Kos and Michael Moore to the Durbin/Kennedy/Murtha outbursts on Iraq, that make Limbaugh seem moderate in comparison; so far the venom that was expressed against Bush dwarfs any legitimate criticism of Obama (we haven’t yet, thank God, had novels like Checkpoint about Obama); the notion that a businessperson like Limbaugh is wrongly profiting from his criticism of Obama is far less persuasive than the suspicion that political operatives are wrongly scrambling to reinvent their message, either to regain power or to become acceptable to those now in power; and finally, the notion that a moderate D.C. insider, in this groupthink Age of Obama, should be deemed courageous for taking on Rush Limbaugh is, with all due respect, completely laughable.

©2009 Victor Davis Hanson

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