How Rush Limbaugh Shaped The GOP's Shutdown Woes

Nearly two weeks after House Republicans forced a government shutdown, less than a quarter of the country has a positive view of the Republican Party. Seven in ten Americans think the Republicans are putting their political goals ahead of the welfare of the country. The GOP has collapsed in the generic congressional preference, while approval ratings for President Obama and the Affordable Care Act -- the reason government was shut down in the first place -- have gone up. The Republicans sit fractious and rudderless in an historic nadir with no strategy to pull themselves out.

But you wouldn't think that were you to tune into Rush Limbaugh's radio program. On October 10, Limbaugh told his listeners that he had supported the “defund” Obamacare scheme that precipitated the shutdown because its architect, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), could “articulate conservatism.” And thus even if the effort didn't actually lead to the defunding of Obamacare, Limbaugh said, it might still be “considered successful even if they don't reach that specific goal.” Meanwhile, according to Rush, House Speaker John Boehner was “getting ready to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory” by forestalling a government default and proposing a six-week increase to the debt limit.

That's a neat little encapsulation of why the Republicans are in this mess. The current GOP doldrums are the product of years of political isolation and insulation enabled by a cheerleading conservative media that rewards ideological rigidity and reflexive partisan gainsaying. And for that, conservatives have Rush Limbaugh to thank.

The conservative media as we know it today -- Fox News, the talk radio sprawl, online ventures like The Daily Caller and Breitbart News -- was shaped by Limbaugh's ascendance in the early 90s. Limbaugh's political celebrity, cemented by his role in the 1994 Republican Revolution, made his brand of hard-edged, uncompromising conservatism the go-to for every conservative talk radio host that followed him. And really you can't blame them: for his contributions, Limbaugh was named an honorary member of the '94 freshman Republican class (which would, incidentally, force a government shutdown in 1995).

The modern conservative media was born with an unshakeable faith in the power of conservatism to win elections and boost Republican political fortunes. Since then, Republican electoral successes and failures have been diagnosed by conservative pundits in terms of whether candidates and their policies were conservative enough. The rise of the ultra-conservative Tea Party, then, seemed like just the antidote to the Republican electoral collapse of 2006-2008. The Tea Party came to power fueled by money from right-wing billionaires and on the back of free publicity from Fox News and talk radio, which made giddy comparisons between the 2010 Tea Party election and the Limbaugh's Republican Revolution in 1994.

But this quest for conservative purity has prevented the Republicans from effectively governing. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson describes the “civil war” being fought among establishment Republicans in Congress and the Tea Party:

The fight has little to do with policy, or even ideology. It pits the party's conservative establishment against an extremist insurgency in a battle over strategy, tactics and, ultimately, control of the party. Each side surveys the other with distrust, even contempt. The establishment believes the insurgents' tactics are suicidal; the insurgents believe the establishment lacks the courage of its alleged convictions - while its own members are so convinced of their righteousness that they compare themselves to civil rights heroes like Rosa Parks. The establishment is backed by powerful business concerns with a vested interest in a functioning government. The insurgents are championed by wealthy ideologues who simply seek to tear down government.

The conservative media have taken sides with the Tea Partiers they helped install. Those same talk radio hosts who emulated Rush are joining ranks with him to try and convince listeners that the Tea Party-led shutdown was sound strategy. “If they want to repeal health care,” suggested Sean Hannity in March, “they've got to shut the government down.... I want them to do it.” “I think we could use a good government shutdown right about now,” Mark Levin declared in mid-September. The loudest voices in the conservative media argue that the GOP is/was winning the shutdown fight, but as usual and the Democrats and the liberals were conspiring to pin blame on the Republicans. The fact that opinion polling showed Americans blamed the GOP and disapproved of closing down parts of the government was taken not as a warning that the strategy was failing, but as proof that the Democrat-media conspiracy against Republicans was real and had to be defeated.

And therein lies the problem. The defund-shutdown strategy wasn't based on anything beyond beating the Democrats and sticking it to the media. As The Atlantic's Conor Freidersdorf wrote, the most popular conservative media personalities spend their time and earn their paychecks not being “conservative,” but being anti-liberal and anti-Democrat:

Watch Sean Hannity. Listen to Rush Limbaugh. With few exceptions, the focus is winning whatever fight happens to be dominating the current news cycle. Each one is treated as if it is as maximally significant as any other, and that is no coincidence. If you're driven by partisan tribalism more than ideology, if getting in rhetorical digs at liberals thrills you more than persuading adversaries or achieving policy victories, it makes sense that you would fight substantively inconsequential battles with no more or less vigor than any other. 

Defining conservatism along these lines is a specialty of Limbaugh's. “I hope Obama fails,” Rush declared days before the Obama administration came into power, setting the tone for what has become a sustained conservative and Republican assault on the White House. Limbaugh's goal of rendering Obama a failure was shared by Republican in Congress who met the night of Obama's first inauguration and mapped out their long-term strategy: “United and unyielding opposition to the president's economic policies.” And as noted above, Limbaugh explained to his audience that he thought the defund effort was worthwhile because of Ted Cruz's ability to preach conservatism: “We got somebody who can articulate conservatism; somebody who can explain to the American people what's wrong with Obama, Obamacare, and the Democrat Party. I thought there's value in that.”

But what was Cruz “articulating” beyond “what's wrong with Obama, Obamacare, and the Democrat Party” ? What was Cruz's “conservative” plan for health care reform? It didn't matter. Cruz was anti-Obama, and that was good enough. At a certain level, Republicans recognize the problems with this dynamic. “We have become expert in how to provide ideological reinforcement to like-minded people,” noted that Republican National Committee's post-mortem of the 2012 election, “but devastatingly we have lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us on every issue.”

What's preventing them from altering this dynamic is the 20 years they spent exploiting it, which gave Limbaugh and his cohorts outsized influence over the direction of the party. The conservative media make it their business to reward obstructionism dressed up as ideology, and conservative Republicans know that even if they're taking it on the chin from Democrats, the media, the American people, and even their own party, they'll still have their talk radio support group. What did Ted Cruz do immediately after he wrapped up his 21-hour ersatz filibuster in support of defunding Obamacare at the expense of government funding?

He phoned in to Rush Limbaugh.