Cheering for Limbaugh, Missing the Point

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If a doctor can’t accurately diagnose what’s wrong with his patient, then the treatment he prescribes is doomed to fail. Republicans tempted to heed Rush Limbaugh’s advice on how to return to power ought to keep this in mind.

According to Limbaugh, who spent about an hour fulminating against assorted villains from “the Democrat Party” at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday night, the G.O.P. simply needs to re-embrace Ronald Reagan and ignore any suggestions that Reagan’s message isn’t well-suited for this era.

“How do you get rid of Reagan from conservatism?” Limbaugh demanded.  “The blueprint — the blueprint for landslide conservative victory is right there.”

He also said that last November’s election, in which Barack Obama" class="company-link">Barack Obama recorded a higher percentage of the vote than any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, should not be cause for shame for the G.O.P.

“This wasn’t a landslide victory, 52 to, what, 46. Fifty-eight million people voted against Obama. There would have been more if we’d had a conservative nominee,” he said.

Not surprisingly, Limbaugh’s blustery defiance and overt contempt for the new president brought the room to its feet over and over. Ideologues, whether on the right or left, love to hear how right they are – especially when (no matter how Limbaugh frames it) their side has just been through two straight electoral drubbings. But at the heart of Limbaugh’s message – a message that has essentially become the official message of the Republican Party – is a glaring ignorance of political history and the forces that shape public opinion.

The electorate is always going to include large numbers of true believers, both liberal and conservative – ideologically fervent voters with fixed views and reflexive loyalty to one party. They are enough to keep a party in business even when it’s down on its luck, but by themselves, these base voters aren’t enough to win an election. It is independents and voters with only casual party loyalty who swing elections.

It’s fine for Limbaugh and his CPAC throng to believe that casual swing voters, the ones who lack fixed ideologies and whose loyalties tend to shift between the two parties, will return to the G.O.P. tent if the party does nothing but spout Reagan platitudes and attack Obama’s agenda as “socialist.” But history suggests this is a doomed strategy.

To understand why Reaganism has fallen out of fashion, it’s critical to grasp why it ever became popular in the first place. There are actually several reasons, but the biggest single factor in Reagan’s 1980 election was that the “stagflation” of the late 1970s – seemingly intractable inflation, unemployment and high interest rates – made swing voters receptive to Reagan’s anti-government conservatism. The New Deal, the Great Society and the Permanent Democratic Congress (the party had controlled the House since 1954) convinced voters in the middle that government had overreached and become a destructive force in American life.

But this isn’t at all where swing voters are in 2009. Just as 1980 represented a popular revolt against the excesses of liberal government, the 2008 election marked an uprising – again, years in the making – against the shortcomings of conservative rule. Swing voters were hostile to government in 1980; today, they are looking to government for solutions. No matter how many Reagan catchphrases Republicans recite, there is no undoing this reality – not in the near future.

Now, Limbaugh and his admirers claim that it’s unfair to interpret the ’08 (and ’06) results this way because George W. Bush and the Republican Congress that rubberstamped his agenda weren’t true conservatives. Therefore, it’s invalid to claim that voters rejected conservatism in the last two elections.

Again, they totally miss the point, and ignore history. It doesn’t matter if the actual record of George W. Bush’s G.O.P. was or wasn’t conservative. What matters is that casual swing voters, people who don’t follow the nuances of congressional politics but who do determine elections, believe that it was and agree that it failed miserably. This is just how politics works.

In the wake of Reagan’s ’80 landslide, the left made the exact same misjudgment. The press (and the G.O.P.) treated the election results as a popular repudiation of New Deal and Great Society politics, and die-hard liberals furiously protested. No, they said, stagflation wasn’t a product of liberalism, it was the result of an imposter Democrat, Jimmy Carter, whose moderate economic agenda was an affront to the Democratic tradition. (It was this sentiment among liberals that led Ted Kennedy to challenge Carter in the 1980 primaries.)

Democrats in the ‘80s behaved much like Limbaugh now wants his party to act. They treated the Reagan landslide as an aberration and professed confidence that a return to traditional liberalism would bring back all of the lost voters. This is the thinking that produced Walter Mondale, the embodiment of the party’s New Deal and Great Society tradition, as the party’s 1984 nominee and the ensuing 49-state landslide defeat at Reagan’s hands.

It wasn’t until 1992 that Democrats finally broke through nationally – by fielding a candidate, Bill Clinton, who understood the shift in public mood that Reagan’s election had brought about and who knew how to cater to it. The signature line of Clinton’s presidency probably came in his 1996 State of the Union speech, when he declared that “the era of Big Government is over.” Only by bowing to the prevailing sentiment of swing voters did Democrats succeed in the Reagan era.

Apparently, Limbaugh missed Clinton’s speech, because he actually said on Saturday, “When the hell do you hear a Democrat say the era of F.D.R. is over? You never hear it.”

But why should Limbaugh care about the long-term health of the Republican Party? He’s a radio host who traffics in ideology, not pragmatism. Demanding rigid purity from Republicans and damning the idea of cooperating with a Democratic president is good for business. Even if the G.O.P. keeps losing elections, there’ll always be an audience eager to hear how the party simply isn’t conservative enough. They’ll be big enough to make for great ratings – but far too small to win an election.


Cheering for Limbaugh, Missing the Point