Monday, March 5, 2012

Rush Limbaugh As Presidential Inkblot Test

Contraception was always dangerous ground for a political battle for both the Republicans and the Democrats. For the Republicans it's hazardous because they are more susceptible to being painted as unresponsive to "women's issues" than Democrats are. For Democrats it's dangerous because they are more susceptible to being painted as anti-religious or anti-religious freedom than Republicans are.

On the other hand, whichever side gets to frame it in the right way has a valuable weapon--so whether by chance or design this battle is being fought.

In the most recent round the Republicans wound up on the losing end due to a phenomenal misstep by one of their heavy-hitters: Rush Limbaugh.

Rush Limbaugh Is A Heavy Hitter??
Well, yes:
This poll is from 2009 but is still arguably true today (See current article: George Will: Republican Leaders Are Afraid of Rush Limbaugh). Rush Limbaugh not only reaches the largest market in talk radio but is key in articulating conservative ideas for a massive portion of the base. Where he ran into trouble was in taking on Sandra Fluke (a 30 year old law student and political activist) over insurance paying for contraception at Georgetown University. The salient points:

  1. Sandra Fluke was submitted as a speaker to speak before the House on the issue of Contraception. She was denied on the grounds that her name was submitted too late (this became an instant talking point and fund-raising issue by the DNC who sent targeted emails and mailers criticizing the hearing for having no women speaking!)
  2. She then got to testify a few days later before House Democratic members saying that birth control would cost 3k for a year. She discussed the issue in the context of a friend with a medical condition that required birth control to prevent cysts from developing in her ovaries and stated that without help from insurance low income women might not be able to meet that need.
The issue exploded when Rush Limbaugh said this on the air:
“What does it say about the college co-ed Sandra Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? What does that make her?” Limbaugh said on his radio show on Wednesday.
“It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex. What does that make us? We’re the pimps.”
The conservative radio host continued on to joke, “OK, so she’s not a slut. She’s ‘round heeled.’”

 This provoked some response and Rush 'doubled down' following up with this:
LIMBAUGH: So Miss Fluke, and the rest of you Feminazis, here’s the deal. If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex. We want something for it. We want you post the videos online so we can all watch.
At this point? Boom: Outrage.

During the dust-up:

For over 20 years, I have illustrated the absurd with absurdity, three hours a day, five days a week. In this instance, I chose the wrong words in my analogy of the situation. I did not mean a personal attack on Ms. Fluke.
I think it is absolutely absurd that during these very serious political times, we are discussing personal sexual recreational activities before members of Congress. I personally do not agree that American citizens should pay for these social activities. What happened to personal responsibility and accountability? Where do we draw the line? If this is accepted as the norm, what will follow? Will we be debating if taxpayers should pay for new sneakers for all students that are interested in running to keep fit?In my monologue, I posited that it is not our business whatsoever to know what is going on in anyone's bedroom nor do I think it is a topic that should reach a Presidential level. My choice of words was not the best, and in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir. I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices.
Is that the end of it? Not hardly. Let's look at why: The reactions of the candidates:

The Presidential Reactions
In a crisis, how the candidates react says a lot about them--I'm not talking about whether or not they defended Rush (although that does as well) but rather to their nimbleness in handling an evolving potentially toxic situation.

GREGORY: Can I just get to my question? Do you think it was harmful…
GREGORY: … that Limbaugh — certainly an influential voice in the conservative grassroots, and you well know that — was it appropriate for him to apologize? Do you think he’s done damage to the debate that you’re now getting into?
GINGRICH: OK. Look, I think–I think it was appropriate for Rush to apologize, I’m glad he apologized. Do you think the president owes an apology to all the men and women in uniform who he, frankly, abandoned when he apologized to religious fanatics in Afghanistan? What’s your opinion, David?
GINGRICH: Should the president apologize to men and women in uniform that he abandoned?
GREGORY: Well, I’m going to continue with my question, so…
GINGRICH: If you want to get into a discussion about apologies, I’m happy to discuss it.
  • Ron Paul got his digs in saying that he didn't think Limbaugh was especially sincere.
  • Romney has been criticized for not saying enough:  “I’ll just say this, which is, it’s not the language I would have used,” Romney said on Friday, while signing autographs after an event in Cleveland. “I’m focusing on the issues that I think are significant in the country today, and that’s why I’m here talking about jobs and Ohio.”
What Does This Mean?
There is no question that Rush Limbaugh has distracted the media from sticking to the candidate's game plan and talking points. What the GOP would want as framed as a discussion about religious liberty has degenerated over the use of the term 'slut.':
By attacking an articulate if sanctimonious law student as a “slut,” and suggesting that she post her sex “videos online so we can all watch,” Limbaugh made it vastly easier to characterize the conservative position as misogynistic and hateful.
But in terms of the candidates, I think this shows their particular styles and issues better than anything else. Let's look (It's like a campaign candidate character petri dish! Say that three times fast!)

  • Gingrich: Gingrich is at his level best when he is attacking the media--which he did. He was savvy enough (from decades in politics) to throw out a disclaimer that would shield him from fire--but then he opened full-salvo on Obama and the media in the same breath. This is Newt's core competency: finding ground to attack where others would defend (see his Hollywood bashing when asked about piracy).
  • Santorum: Santorum has a rep as a guy who says it like he sees it for a reason: he often says it in a way that makes the GOP-brass face-palm. While I'm sure he has no great opinion of Fluke, I think more importantly he finds the idea of anyone, anywhere being mailed a sex-tape absurd. I mean, do you even have to wonder? Essentially he calls Rush an entertainer (he probably knows better--but still, he's not technically incorrect) and quickly makes his stance known--and moves on. 
  • Paul: Paul has been relentlessly attacked by Rush and other radio personalities. Giving some back is pure Ron Paul. It's one of the reasons I think he just might make a 3rd Party Run: when he doesn't like you, he really doesn't like you (he shares this with Newt, I think). In any event, he also calls it like he sees it. Instead of playing to the base and defending Rush--which would be the tactical move--he says what everyone else thought: Rush apologized when he lost sponsors. Before that? Uh-uh.
  • Romney: Mitt Romney doesn't like dealing with the press unless he has to. He doesn't like hanging around to get asked gotcha questions. He's much rather stick to his talking-points plan. He also doesn't want to offend anyone. Not the moderates--who are his claim to electability. Not the base--who suspect him of being a Democrat in RINO-clothing. As a result, in typical Romney fashion he serves up a lukewarm meal that satisfies no one.

What Do I Think?
Rush Limbaugh is a master of saying incendiary things that are lovingly wrapped with enough context to be defensible. This drives liberals mad as they're sure he's a racist, sexist, or whatever-ist--but when you take him in context? There's sufficient structure to hold up his case. Here, though, he blew it. Why? Because the terms 'slut' and 'prostitute' are out of step with the audience beyond Rush's walls. I think sexism often gets a pass in the media where racism will not (any Hillary supporters from '08 will be agreeing with me here)--but some things are out of bounds.

Just like Dog The Bounty Hunter finding out he couldn't safely use the n-word, I think Rush was probably surprised to discover that calling Fluke a slut was beyond what he could get away with. That misstep is the kind of thing that leaves a mark.

I also think that this incident shows just how dangerous it is to mess with "Women's issues." We've seen that if the discussion can be framed that way it provokes a hot-button response that frightens advertisers. After all, women are 50% of the population--and while I'm sure many of them were as unimpressed with Fluke as Rush Limbaugh was, there's probably a smaller number who like the term 'slut' being thrown around--or just found the attack with the "mail me a sex tape" way too personal and in bad taste.

I suspect that this specific incident will blow over soon--but I think that what will remain is enduring damage to contraception issue which, if, I'm sure, Obama has anything to say about it, won't go away until November 5th.

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