For 30 or so years, from his perch behind the golden EIB microphone, Rush Limbaugh served not so much as the conscience of the Republican Party as its captain on the playing field.
Having done daily talk radio myself for five years, I had a keen appreciation of just how well Rush did what he did. If his critics held his lack of a college degree against him, I saw it as a strength.
Before finding his stride in 1988, Rush struggled. He knew what failure tasted like. In those many years of trial and error, he intuited his way to a philosophy that was rich in common sense. I may have a Ph.D. in American studies, but it was to this college drop-out that I turned for my daily dose of hard-earned wisdom.
Although Rush made the occasional bad call – his support of NAFTA comes to mind – and he had his blind spots – TWA Flight 800, for instance – he guided the GOP through a hostile media landscape with impressive steadiness for lo those many years.
It is hard to gauge precisely the magnitude of his audience – 15 to 25 million cumulative weekly listeners – but what no one denies is that his was easily the most listened to commercial talk-radio show from very nearly the beginning until his last day on the mic.
Among the listeners were the movers and shakers within the GOP. Almost inevitably, Rush made more sense than they did. The Kevin McCarthys and the Mitch McConnells of the world could not afford to ignore him or his audience.
In presidential election years, the nominee has to be the captain. Unfortunately, the GOP did not have a strong nominee between 1988 and 2012. In the alternative years, at least since Newt Gingrich stepped down as House speaker, the captaincy fell to Rush.
In 2010, against a much more formidable opponent than Joe Biden, Rush rallied the team to a big time win – seven seats in the Senate and an incredible 63 in the House. In 2014, the GOP picked up 13 more House seats and nine in the Senate.
For the Democrats, thanks in major part to Rush’s de facto leadership, the Obama years were a disaster. In January 2009, the Democratic Party controlled both chambers of 27 state legislatures. Eight years later, Democrats controlled both chambers in only 13 states.
It gets better. On Obama’s watch, his party lost a net total of 13 governorships and 816 state legislative seats. Although historians talk of the “Age of Jackson” and the “Reagan Era,” when all is said and done, Barack Obama will deserve little more than an unpleasant moment.
Rush had a lot to do with this. As authoritative as he was amusing, he helped the electorate keep its eye on the prize. His deft handling of the 2016 Republican primary season paved the way to Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election. For the next four years, of course, Trump was the man in charge.
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In 2022, with Trump largely sidelined, the GOP has no game plan. Its nominal leaders seem content to protect their presumed lead and play out the clock until Election Day.
Given the state of the opposition, the strategy will likely work just well enough, but blowouts take leadership. Having shuffled off this mortal coil, Rush, alas, is no longer there to provide it.
As Rush’s clock ticked down, there was much speculation as to who would take his place on the radio. As has become clear, no one could. There was hope for Mark Steyn, Rush’s best replacement host, but I suspect that Steyn understood the futility of trying to replace a legend. Better to replace the guy who replaces the legend.
On television, Tucker Carlson has proven to be much bolder and smarter than anyone else in the business, but television isn’t radio. Carlson doesn’t get three intimate hours a day and a captive audience. And try as he might, he lacks Rush’s common touch.
Rush had one other gift other commentators lack, and that was the power to reassure. Although obviously aware of what was wrong with the world, he never ceased to remind us of what was right. And today, we need that reminding more than ever.
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