Small Tent Conservatism

On questioning the Dear Leader, Rush Limbaugh


At the American Enterprise Instutute (AEI) last week, a panel of conservative intellectuals gathered to discuss the legacy of National Review founder William F. Buckley and the future of the Republican Party. During the question-and-answer period, a retired foreign service officer, who confessed to having frequently loitered at National Review editorial meetings in the 1960s at the invitation of senior editor Wilmore Kendall, lamented the anti-intellectualism of today's conservative movement. "Do we have to listen to 14-year-old kids and overweight blabbermouths," he grumbled, to receive our marching orders? Another questioner denounced the "fundamentalism" of talk radio doyen Rush Limbaugh, to which Chris DeMuth, former president of AEI, responded with a curt "amen." (He refused to elaborate, when pressed.) Panelist Charles Kesler, editor of the Claremont Review of Books, argued that it would surely be a "bad thing if Limbaugh was the tip of the conservative spear or the spokesman of the conservative movement."

If conservatism seems rudderless today—opposed to so much, in favor of so little—it is hardly the first time. In a 1971 interview with author George Nash, the libertarian fusionist Frank Meyer sighed that his comrades in the conservative movement defined themselves primarily in opposition to liberalism, forsaking a coherent governing strategy based on clearly defined principles. Indeed, when Meyer made these comments, there was a Republican in the White House who, on important issues like wage and price controls, had little interest in governing from the right. It was perhaps these years in the wilderness, being unaccustomed to success, that held together the always tenuous libertarian-conservative coalition. In his classic study The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, Nash noted that, despite fissures in the free market and social conservative wings of the movement, the right had, for the most part, "managed to remain united and cooperative."

But that was then. Today, the libertarian-conservative alliance is marked more by skepticism than cooperation, though President Barack Obama's response to the financial crisis will likely push the two groups back into an uneasy coalition. After the disastrous Republican losses of 2006 and 2008 and the deeply unpopular war in Iraq, Republicans might want to revisit Frank Meyer's question: Conservatives know what they are against, but what on earth are they for?

A handful of conservative intellectuals, noting that the political realities of 2008 require a different set of solutions then those that drove the Reagan revolution in 1980, have started asking this very question. David Frum, editor of the website New Majority and former Bush speechwriter, provoked anger on the right when, during the 2008 campaign, he dismissed the clueless Sarah Palin as an intellectual lightweight, unfit to be a "heartbeat" away from the Oval Office. Last week, after Limbaugh denounced those who desired "reform"—no names were offered, but his targets were clear—from the dais at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Frum responded with a denunciation of his own. "With his private plane and his cigars, his history of drug dependency and his personal bulk, not to mention his tangled marital history," Frum wrote, "Rush is a walking stereotype of self-indulgence—exactly the image that Barack Obama most wants to affix to our philosophy and our party. And we're cooperating!"

This was an apostasy too far. The conservative radio host and National Review columnist Mark Levin shouted that Frum was a "Canadian a-hole," a "jerk," and a "putz." When Frum called in to respond, Levin sputtered that "nobody knows who you are," no one reads "[your] pathetic books and pathetic articles," and—in what seems customary of right-wing yakkers—when he attempted to repond to this flurry of ad hominem invective, Levin cut his microphone. Frum, he declared, was "damaging the conservative movement" with his criticism of fellow conservatives.

Such puerile insults, as John Derbyshire points out in the American Conservative, are Levin's stock-in-trade and often sound like outtakes from Topps' Wacky Packages. For instance, Levin is fond of attacking the reporters at the "Washington Compost and New York Slimes." (When pundit Tucker Carlson told a crowd at CPAC that conservatives should strive to produce fact-based journalism like that of The New York Times, he was lustily booed). Levin, of course, responded—and proved Derbyshire's point, calling him "reckless" and an "idiot."

Erick Erickson, editor of the conservative opinion clearinghouse Red State, added his two cents as well, thundering against "these leeches" and "turds who want us to sideline our most proven warrior," while wondering if "any of these critics ever actually won an election?"(Does it need pointing out that the current crop of Republican politicians, intellectual leaders, and strategists have themselves had a rather difficult time winning elections?)

For those who swear no fealty to "the movement," it is clear that, for all of the mau-mauing he's received from critics, Frum has a point. Limbaugh's exhausting speech to a standing-room only crowd of CPAC true-believers gives an idea of what he thinks ails the Republican party. The solution, as it always is, is a surfeit of Reaganism:

For the purposes of this occasion, I'm not going to mention any names, I bet with you I won't have to…I cringed—it might have been 2007, late 2007 or sometime during 2008, but a couple of prominent conservative but Beltway establishment media types began to write on the concept that the era of Reagan is over. [Crowd Booing] … You see, to me it's a no-brainer. It's not even something to me: How do you get rid of Reagan from conservatism… These people in New York and Washington, cocktail elitists, they get made fun of when the next NASCAR race is on TV and their cocktail buds come up to them, those people are in your party? How do you put up with this? It would be easy to throw them overboard, so as to maintain these cocktail party/Beltway/New York City/inside-the-Beltway media relationships. But I tell you: This notion that Reaganism is dead, conservatism needs to be refined, let's take a look at this.

This is much the same advice Limbaugh gave George W. Bush in 2000: "Don't move to the center…The Reagan base in the GOP is more excited and stirred up than any time I remember in the nearly 12 years I have been doing my national show." Eight years later, he was making the same, almost Marxian class-war argument against the "cocktail elitists," "intellectualoids," "hoity-toity bourgeoisie," and "pseudointellectual conservative media types" that pushed the very un-Reaganesque John McCain's to the top of the ticket. After Obama's victory, Limbaugh bizarrely determined that voters avoided the Republican Party because it wasn't conservative enough.

Limbaugh, the argument goes, is an entertainer but also a very clever guy. If this is indeed true, then he is surely aware that Reaganism was a specific reaction to a specific set of challenges—communism and detente, high marginal tax rates, the Iranian hostage crisis—that are rather different than the financial crisis currently enveloping the country. And assuming that Limbaugh isn't simply trading in hero-worship and caricature, which Ronald Reagan is he talking about? The pragmatic Cold Warrior who enraged his conservative followers by engaging with Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavik and attempting to forfeit American nuclear weapons? The president who decided, after the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon, that the best response was to, with haste and alacrity, get the hell out of Beirut?

There is a substantive case to be made—which is, alas, beyond the scope of this argument—that it was the triumph of Reaganism and the end of the Cold War that temporarily doomed conservatism. The rise of Limbaugh followed, and the right soon began obsessing over Bill Clinton's cheating heart and cheating golf game, all while paying little attention to the reshaping of its post-Cold War message. Bush's razor-thin victory in 2000 was hardly an ideological victory for mainstream conservatism—preaching, as it did, a humble foreign policy and a "compassionate" social policy.

When one strips away the facile and vague arguments about a return to Reaganism, what remains is a profound—and ill-defined—anti-elitism. During the 2008 campaign, Jim Nuzzo, a White House aide to the first President George Bush, dismissed Sarah Palin's critics as "cocktail party conservatives" who "give aid and comfort to the enemy." "There's going to be a bloodbath," he told the Daily Telegraph. "A lot of people are going to be excommunicated. David Brooks and David Frum and Peggy Noonan are dead people in the Republican Party. The litmus test will be: where did you stand on Palin?" (A few days before making his Stalinist diktat, Nuzzo, in an interview with the Boston Herald, happily cited William F. Buckley, a patrician conservative that kept an Upper East Side maisonette, frequently employed words that required the consultation of multiple dictionaries, and partied with Truman Capote.)

Asking the correct questions about recent Republican failures will require a substantive look at just what George W. Bush's presidency has wrought—those failed policies that so many talk radio apparatchiks unswervingly defended for the last eight years. And while it's fair to look at the policy prescriptions offered by reformists like Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat, David Brooks, and David Frum and find them wanting, it is quite another to suggest that such questions shouldn't be asked in the first place. To Mark Levin, "real" conservatives have had "enough" of Frum's ideas about Rush Limbaugh. And Limbaugh last week demanded a stop to the criticism of Lousiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, declaring that "I don't want to hear from you ever again if you think that what Bobby Jindal said was bad or what he said was wrong or not said well."

So Rush Limbaugh plugs his ears when confronted by critics from the right, Mark Levin appoints himself enforcer of ideological orthodoxy, and David Frum is branded a traitor to the movement. Have fun in the wilderness Republicans, but don't ever say that you weren't warned.

Michael C. Moynihan is a senior editor of Reason magazine.