RUSH VS. NEWT: GAME ON!
I am still trying to digest what everyone agrees was an important speech by Rush Limbaugh to CPAC attendees on Saturday. It was, perhaps, the most entertaining political speech I’ve ever heard. But a speech that will last for decades and make an impact on the conservative movement? No one knows. But we can try and judge it based on some solid principles of what makes a good political speech.
I have often pointed to Theodore H. White’s definition of what goes into the making of a good political speech - the moment in history when the speech is given, the background or “framing” of the speech, and the words themselves. In these respects, Limbaugh hit a stand up double and, with a little more effort, may have stretched it to a triple. The moment in history was ripe; conservatism at sea, rudderless, and uncertain of itself in the age of Obama. The backdrop - the CPAC convention with just about everyone who is anyone in the conservative movement present and paying attention (exceptions include some more moderate conservatives frozen out by the movement) as well as mass media coverage. But the words themselves meandered aimlessly at times as Limbaugh treated the address more like an extended monologue from his radio show rather than a well crafted, carefully thought out political speech.
Newt Gingrich also spoke to a large, enthusiastic crowd at CPAC but didn’t get half the coverage of Limbaugh despite a speech that, in many ways, was even more important than Rush’s tour de force. The difference in the two speeches was striking. Rush eschewed a teleprompter - to his detriment I think while Newt used the device to say exactly what he meant to say. Meanwhile, Gingrich had his ideas bubbling up from somewhere deep inside, churning and frothing on the surface until they were laid out like a picnic lunch, cogently and coherently by a master conceptualist. Limbaugh’s speech was more volcanic- erupting against Obama and the Democrats emotionally while flowing effortlessly from pop culture conservatism to a more thoughtful but still generalized critique of the Obama administration.
The juvenile confrontation yesterday between Limbaugh and RNC Chairman Michael Steele, placed in the context of Limbaugh’s extended remarks at CPAC, would lead one to believe that there is the possibility of a civil war erupting in the GOP between the grass roots and the elites. That may yet happen. However, I think it much more likely that war will break out between movement conservatives like Gingrich and “party men” like Limbaugh.
Who is Rush Limbaugh? And why did the only other speech of note at the conference - New Gingrich’s much more thoughtful but flawed critique of conservatism - not receive the massive attention devoted to Limbaugh?
Because Rush is on radio? I’m sure that’s part of it. But beyond that, one speaker gave the audience largely what they wanted to hear, putting into words the feelings and fears of listeners while the other engaged the minds of his audience by relating some uncomfortable but necessary truths. In that kind of competition, the appeal to emotion wins out over the appeal to intellect every time.
Limbaugh does not fit any of the comfortable definitions that liberals and the media love to apply to conservatives. Calling him a mere talk show host is simply wrong and reveals the ignorance of anyone who tries and make that claim. Limbaugh has crossed the cultural divide and, like Obama, become more than a political figure (or entertainer) and achieved a peculiar kind of celebrity. Ross Douthat believes a more appropos comparison is with Oprah Winfrey, someone who crosses easily between the entertainment and political world. In this respect, the irony is that both men start from the other side of that divide. Limbaugh, the entertainer has passed Obama while on the way to achieving his status as political bellweather of the GOP. Meanwhile, Obama was moving the other way, from political force to cultural celebrity. Loved by their legions of supporters, despised by their opponents (with both men generating a hate from their opponents that mirrors the passion of their supporters), the deliciousness of this parallel between the two men shows both the strengths and weaknesses of our political culture.
But Limbaugh’s status is a millstone around the neck of conservatism. Despite his obvious gift of a sharp mind and his presenting the clear impression that he has given a considerable amount of thought to the nature of modern conservatism, Limbaugh nevertheless has a rather narrow and even shallow view of what conservatism is and where it stands right now.
Limbaugh’s speech appealed to the heart, rather than the head.
For those of you just tuning in on the Fox News Channel or C-SPAN, I’m Rush Limbaugh and I want everyone in this room and every one of you around the country to succeed. I want anyone who believes in life, liberty, pursuit of happiness to succeed. And I want any force, any person, any element of an overarching Big Government that would stop your success, I want that organization, that element or that person to fail. I want you to succeed. [Applause] Also, for those of you in the Drive-By Media watching, I have not needed a teleprompter for anything I’ve said. [Cheers and Applause ] And nor do any of us need a teleprompter, because our beliefs are not the result of calculations and contrivances. Our beliefs are not the result of a deranged psychology. Our beliefs are our core. Our beliefs are our hearts. We don’t have to make notes about what we believe. We don’t have to write down, oh do I believe it do I believe that we can tell people what we believe off the top of our heads and we can do it with passion and we can do it with clarity, and we can do it persuasively. Some of us just haven’t had the inspiration or motivation to do so in a number of years, but that’s about to change. [Cheers and Applause]
Limbaugh struggles to move beyond these show biz tropes when he gets into what he describes as a definition of conservatism:
Let me tell you who we conservatives are: We love people. [Applause] When we look out over the United States of America, when we are anywhere, when we see a group of people, such as this or anywhere, we see Americans. We see human beings. We don’t see groups. We don’t see victims. We don’t see people we want to exploit. What we see — what we see is potential. We do not look out across the country and see the average American, the person that makes this country work. We do not see that person with contempt. We don’t think that person doesn’t have what it takes. We believe that person can be the best he or she wants to be if certain things are just removed from their path like onerous taxes, regulations and too much government. [Applause]
We want every American to be the best he or she chooses to be. We recognize that we are all individuals. We love and revere our founding documents, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. [Applause] We believe that the preamble to the Constitution contains an inarguable truth that we are all endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life. [Applause] Liberty, Freedom. [Applause] And the pursuit of happiness. [Applause] Those of you watching at home may wonder why this is being applauded. We conservatives think all three are under assault. [Applause] Thank you. Thank you.
Aside from the small matter that the quote about “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” appears not in the preamble to the Constitution but the Declaration of Independence, that is a very nice start to explaining what conservatism means.
But after telling the audience he was going to define conservatism, Limbaugh flits away off to another red meat topic guaranteed to light a fire under his listeners. His bragging about not needing to write down what his principles are because “we can tell people what we believe off the top of our heads and we can do it with passion and we can do it with clarity, and we can do it persuasively,” may be true as far as it goes but I am reminded of Francis Bacon’s admonition “Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.” Judging by Rush’s speech, he was anything but “exact.”
But this didn’t seem to bother his thousands of admirers as he hammered away gleefully at Obama and liberals. Here, Rush shows he’s somewhat familiar with Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s critique of the effect of the welfare state on Black families and gets to the nub of the Obama revolution; dependency:
They do believe that they have compassion. They do believe they care. But, see, we never are allowed to look at the results of their plans, we are told we must only look at their good intentions, their big hearts. The fact that they have destroyed poor families by breaking up those families by offering welfare checks to women to keep having babies no more father needed, he’s out doing something, the government’s the father, they destroy the family. We’re not supposed to analyze that. We’re not supposed to talk about that. We’re supposed to talk about their good intentions. They destroy people’s futures. The future is not Big Government. Self-serving politicians. Powerful bureaucrats. This has been tried, tested throughout history. The result has always been disaster. President Obama, your agenda is not new. It’s not change, and it’s not hope. [Applause] Spending a nation into generational debt is not an act of compassion. All politicians, including President Obama, are temporary stewards of this nation. It is not their task to remake the founding of this country. It is not their task to tear it apart and rebuild it in their image.
(Crowd chanting “USA”)
It is not their task, it is not their right to remake this nation to accommodate their psychology. I sometimes wonder if liberalism is not just a psychosis or a psychology, not an ideology. It’s so much about feelings, and the predominant feeling that liberalism is about is about feeling good about themselves and they do that by telling themselves they have all this compassion. You know, if you really want to unhinge a liberal it’s hard to do because they’re so unhinged now anyway, even after — but all you have to do is say you know that the things you people do, the things you people believe in are cruel. That’s the last way they look at themselves. They are the best people on the — they’re the good people. You tell them that their ideas and that their policies are cruel and the eggs start scrambling.
But it was Rush’s references to Reagan that put him at odds with reformers like Gingrich. Limbaugh believes talk of “change” is treason. There is nothing wrong with conservatism that wouldn’t be cured by transplanting the Reagan agenda to the present:
Conservatism — for us to make the decision that we’ve got to figure out policies, to get the Walmart voter — psst, we’ve got most of them already, is the bottom line. Conservatism is a universal set of core principles. You don’t check principles at the door. This is a battle that we’re going to have. And there are egos involved here, too. When the situation like ours exists, there are people who want to lead it. They want to redefine it. Their egos are such that they want to be the next X, whoever it is. So there will be different factions lining up to try to define what conservatism is. And beware of those different factions who seek as part of their attempt to redefine conservatism, as making sure the liberals like us, making sure that the media likes us. They never will, as long as we remain conservatives. They can’t possibly like us; they’re our enemy. In a political arena of ideas, they’re our enemy. They think we need to be defeated. Why do you think — you all in this room know this. For those of you watching at home, my first address to the nation — [Laughter] — I’m sure you paid close enough attention, that you knew at one time Senator McCain was the favorite Republican of all the cable news networks and the Sunday shows. And they would just — I mean their tongues would be on the floor. The media people (panting) when they knew McCain was coming. And they would treat McCain as the greatest guy in the world. Did you wonder why? You were told he was moderate. He was not strict. He was not an authoritarian, he was able to walk to the other side of the aisle, able to get along with the enemy. And everybody wants love and bipartisanship.
That’s not why they invited Senator McCain. They invited Senator McCain because he happened to be the loudest at criticizing his own president and his own party and that’s what they want, is people from our side — and there will be factions in our movement, folks, who are going to make an effort to say we have to grow, we can’t stay stale, I think I heard the term used the other day. Nothing stale about freedom. There’s nothing stale about liberty. There’s nothing stale about fighting for it. Nothing stale whatsoever. [Applause] Freedom. Are you getting tired of standing up, I don’t blame you. By the way for those watching on TV you think the standing — people are just tired. They’ve been up and out of their chairs 100 times here. [Applause] Thank you. Freedom — freedom is the natural yearning of the human spirit as we were endowed by our creator. And the United States of America is the place in the world where that yearning flourishes, where freedom is expected because it’s part of the way we’re created.
I will say frankly that this is the nuttiest part of Limbaugh’s speech. There is probably no one answer to what ails conservatism but there is widespread agreement among profressionals that people like Rush, who wish to repeal not only the Great Society but also the New Deal, are anachronisms. It is not going to happen - ever. The question then becomes do conservatives chase a will o’ the wisp goals that guarantee them permanent minority status or do they apply conservative principles to government as it is and not as we would wish it to be?
I am a broken record saying this as my regular readers know. Since I began promoting this course of action, several commenters have made some excellent points that reveal glaring weaknesses in this formulation. To wit.
* There is a danger that anything proposed by conservatives in Congress would be seen simply as “liberal lite” and voters would give the GOP no credit for dealing with reality.
* The nature of the opposition would make any effort to apply conservative principles to governance moot.
* There is also a danger of throwing our principles under the bus in an effort to compromise.
* The American people are basically conservative and all we have to do is become more conservative ourselves to win.
This will not be an easy or quick route back to power. But I believe a recognition that for conservatism to be vital it must be brought into the 21st century where appeals to the heart fall by the wayside and calls for new thinking dominate. Here’s Gingrich at CPAC (unfortunately I have been unable to acquire a transcript of this speech and only have these extended excerpts):
The great irony of where we are today is that we have a Bush- Obama big spending program that was bipartisan in its nature. Last year the Bush-Obama plan had a $180 billion stimulus package in the spring which failed. It came back with a $345 billion housing package in the summer which failed. It then had a $700 billion Wall Street spending package in October which failed. It had a $4 trillion Federal Reserve guarantee which failed… We got big spending under Bush, now we got big spending under Obama. And so we have 2 new failures. The lesson I draw from this is that we have a party of the American people… that was led by Ronald Reagan and on the legislative side reached its peak with the Contract with America and the election of a majority actually dedicated to reforming welfare, cutting taxes, and balancing the budget. And there is a party of big government and political elites and tragically in the last few years the Republican party became the right wing of the party of big government and political elites. And that is why there is a Bush Obama continuity in economic policy which is frankly a disaster for this country and cannot work.”
I find it fascinating that both men invoke the name of Reagan in two entirely different theaters. Rush points to Reagan’s core beliefs as set in stone - despite the fact that 48% of Americans already pay no taxes at all. How across the board tax cuts would generate the trillions in revenue to offset the damage already done by Obama goes unanswered.
On the other hand, Gingrich takes the Gipper’s desire to reach out to Democrats and independents and uses it as a model for a conservative comeback. Note also that where Rush almost exclusively talks of Republicans, Gingrich speaks more generally about conservatives.
I consider this the most important statement made during the entire week:
And so it is time to recreate the party of the American people and to recognize that that is a much bigger party than the Republican party. In every major political speech Ronald Reagan reached out to Democrats and Independents as well as Republicans, and he understood to govern in America you have to bring people together in a tripartisan majority. We are bigger than the Republican party, we stand for principles that transcend the Republican party, and we’re going to fight for the principles that lead to economic growth and jobs.”
It is implicit in forming this “tri-partisan majority” that some aspects of the welfare state as well as regulatory agencies are remade to function according to conservative principles and not done away with entirely as many Limbaugh conservatives would like to see. Too many Americans benefit from these government programs for the Middle Class to abandon them in favor of some nebulous promise that suffering by denying oneself benefits from government is somehow enobling. In a modern state of 300 million people, the Jeffersonian “yeoman farmer” model of the republic is a fantasy that, if it ever was true, hasn’t been so for more than 100 years.
Limbaugh, the Iconoclast vs. Gingrich the Conceptualizer. That is where the movement will cleave most noticably. One side living in the past, fantasizing about recapturing conservative greatness by stroking Reagan’s name and accomplishments as if they were a magic talisman designed to wipe away the modern world and lead us back to some ancien regime where everyone bagged their own meat, built their own houses, and churned their own butter. The other, dealing with life in America as it is in the 21st century - an enormously complex clash of interests where conservatism must find a comfortable place in which to compete in the great marketplace of ideas.
It will be a lovely little war.