People sometimes ask Rush Limbaugh if he has plans to run for public office, and his answer is always the same—he can’t afford the pay cut.
This is a rare understatement by El Rushbo. His annual income is greater than the combined salary of the entire U.S. Senate (and you can toss in a few dozen congressmen and cabinet secretaries for good measure). “I certainly don’t derive my living by what goes on in Washington, and I’m not dependent on what happens there,” he boasted to his radio audience in September. “The further away that city is from my life, the more prosperous I am.”
Limbaugh, who lives like a pasha in an oceanside estate in Palm Beach, Fla., doesn’t need to go to Washington to be heard there. His voice carries to the nation’s capital and beyond, to every state and congressional district in the country. The Rush Limbaugh Show is on the air three hours a day, five days a week, carried by some 650 radio stations. Industry estimates put his weekly audience somewhere between 15 million and 20 million. Talkers Magazine recently named him the most important radio host of all time.
Limbaugh has wielded political influence since his show first went national 22 years ago. In 1994 he was so important to the Republican congressional landslide that the GOP House freshman class made him an honorary member. But never before in his long career has Limbaugh had the degree of political influence he currently enjoys. It is not an exaggeration to say, as former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel did, that Limbaugh is “the voice and the intellectual force and energy behind the Republican Party.” He intends to use that force and energy to shape the Republican side of the next Congress.
In a recent e-mail exchange, Limbaugh laid out his to-do list, which includes repeal of the health-care law and the financial-regulatory-reform bill; ending the ban on offshore drilling; the reprivatization of General Motors, Chrysler, and the student-loan program; a spike in the heart of cap-and-trade legislation (he regards global warming as a hoax); the elimination of the capital-gains tax; a reduction of the corporate tax rate to 20 percent; and replacement of the progressive income-tax code with a flat or “fair” tax.
Limbaugh is aware that it is very unlikely that there will be enough votes in Congress to achieve any of this. But that isn’t the point. He wants to use the next two years as an educational seminar on what he regards as the evils of Obama-style liberalism. “The mistake the GOP made in 1994 is that they stopped teaching after they won,” he says. What should the GOP do to make its point? “Send Obama a repeal bill every week and make him veto it,” he suggests. “My attitude is, who says we can’t override his vetoes? The Republicans are being sent to Washington to stop the Obama agenda. And it is not just Republicans sending them to D.C. Lots of independents and Democrats are going to vote for Republicans to stop this.”
This hell-no strategy requires hard-line congressional leaders. Lately Limbaugh has been going after Republican elites in Washington who are, in his opinion, overly given to compromise. He isn’t yet opposing John Boehner or Mitch McConnell, but if and when they seem to be going wobbly, he already has his eye on possible alternatives—Mike Pence, Michele Bachmann, and Paul Ryan in the House; Jim DeMint and Tom Coburn in the Senate.
Limbaugh is contemptuous of the conventional wisdom that Republicans must moderate their ideology in order to win elections. “Real conservatism”—by which he means Reaganism, broadly speaking—“wins every time it is tried,” he says. He wants to build a political party so ideological that moderates can’t even be nominated. With that in mind, in mid-September he announced a revision of the long-held Buckley Rule, William F. Buckley’s dictum that Republicans should always vote for the most conservative candidate with a chance to beat his Democratic opponent. “It’s time,” he informed his audience, “for the Limbaugh Rule to supplant and replace the Buckley Rule … In an election year when voters are fed up with liberalism and socialism, when voters are clearly frightened of where the hell the country is headed, vote for the most conservative Republican in the primary, period.”
This pronouncement was timed to help Tea Party favorite Christine O’Donnell defeat the more moderate Mike Castle in the Delaware primary. Republican establishment pros like Karl Rove have argued that O’Donnell was a sure loser in November, and could cost the Republicans control of the Senate, but Limbaugh dismisses this as self-serving Beltway thinking. “What good are 51 votes if a minimum of three are unreliable?” he asked. “The primary reason [the GOP establishment] wants 51 votes is to get the chairmanships.”
Limbaugh’s support for O’Donnell was by no means surprising. Although he has never publicly claimed leadership of the amorphous Tea Party, it is a mirror of Limbaugh’s longstanding themes of small government, low taxation, tight immigration enforcement, the belief in American exceptionalism, and a sense of estranged hostility from the “country-club wing” of the GOP. The Limbaugh show is the largest daily gathering of Tea Partiers, and he has used it to raise money for candidates such as O’Donnell and Sharron Angle of Nevada. He has also insisted that Tea Partiers resist any impulse to leave the GOP and morph into a third party.
If the polls are right and there is a conservative Republican landslide this week, Limbaugh will turn his attention to imposing the Limbaugh Rule in 2012. I recently asked him to rate a list of the leading aspirants—Newt Gingrich, Haley Barbour, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Tim Pawlenty, and Chris Christie—on a scale of 1 (if this is the nominee, I’m moving to Costa Rica) to 10 (Reagan redux). In reply he gave Huckabee a 4; Pawlenty, Gingrich, and Romney 6’s; Barbour a 7. Palin and Christie each scored an 8.
Limbaugh arrived on the national scene too late for the Reagan glory days, and although he occasionally visited both Bushes at the White House, he was never more than a guest. But if Palin, Christie, or some other 8 or 9 (there is no 10 but Limbaugh) were to get elected president, Limbaugh told me that he might be willing, under the right conditions, to serve as a dollar-a-year adviser to the administration. It would mean, of course, spending time in the hated capital, but a guy with a private jet can commute to Palm Beach. And the pay cut would be mitigated by a precipitous drop in his personal income tax. The biggest drawback would be that a senior job might require a hiatus from the airwaves. His audience would miss him, but I can think of quite a few liberal Democrats (and even more moderate Republicans), who would be very happy to put up the dollar. For these adversaries, it would be a great deal. No adviser, to any president, is likely to have the kind of influence Rush Limbaugh has right now.
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