Today is International Women’s Day, and you can mark the occasion by reading our very informative cover story this week, or you can do what I’m doing and enjoy the spectacle of Rush Limbaugh feeling the heat over his Sandra Fluke comments, which has penetrated even the thick cocoon of right-wing lunacy that he inhabits. I don’t mind admitting that I’m savoring the sight of such a blowhard being given such a richly deserved comeuppance, which has thinkers of all stripes debating whether “Slutgate” has happened because of the rise of social networking, or because of Rush’s bungled attempt at an apology, or because his brand of demagoguery finally led him to push too far. The whole thing has given slut-shaming a bad name, and thank God for that. Conservatives are predictably blaming the evil liberal media complex, and they’re wondering why left-wing politicians haven’t
refudiated repudiated the talking heads on their side when they’ve stepped out of line. That’s not an unfair question (and I have more on it further down), but it’s the wrong one. The question is: Why has this scandal stuck to Rush Limbaugh when he’s gotten away with saying so many other loathsome things in the past?
The answer is this: Limbaugh’s sustained verbal assault on a law student confirmed two negative stories about the right wing. Negative Story #1: Conservatives want to keep your vagina under lock and key. The seeds of the current Republican “war on women” meme were planted back in January, when the Department of Health and Human Services declined to expand the “religious exemption” which exempts churches and ministries only from handing out contraception to employees if it goes against the tenets of their religion. Anti-contraception forces wanted the right expanded to religiously affiliated employers. The Republican presidential candidates then spoke out against contraception until the Obama administration announced a compromise. On Slate, Amanda Marcotte convincingly argued that the Republicans had walked straight into a White House trap. That went along with Rep. Darrell Issa’s infamous no-girls-allowed House hearing on contraception and the Senate’s defeat of the Blunt amendment, which would have expanded the religious exemption to all employers (meaning that Wal-Mart or Subway Sandwiches or the accountant who works in the strip mall could pull their employees’ contraception if they wanted). Rush Limbaugh’s disgusting, ignorant, inaccurate, and cruel comments crystallized all the free-floating sentiment that conservatives want to turn America into Saudi Arabia. Now comedians aren’t just having a field day, they’re rolling around ecstatically in the grass.
Of course, the damage might have been confined to Limbaugh if Republican leaders had disowned his words, but since they didn’t, that played into Negative Story #2: Republicans are afraid of crossing even their wackiest voters. All four of the Republican candidates for president, as well as House Speaker John Boehner, were given chances to distance themselves from Limbaugh, and all they offered were the anodyne likes of Mitt Romney’s “It’s not the language I would have used.” The blogosphere was unimpressed. Of course, some right-wingers did step forward and condemn Rush in no uncertain terms, such as John McCain and fusty old George Will, who came up with some of the best lines of the scandal. (“Mr. Boehner said that Rush’s language was inappropriate. Using a salad fork for your entree — that is inappropriate.”) However, that only served to highlight the watered-down nature of the Republican leadership’s response. Steve Kornacki over on Salon detailed how Limbaugh’s rise to power coincided with the victories scored by Newt Gingrich’s radical conservatives in the 1990s, which is why many right-wingers feel as if criticizing Limbaugh is the same as criticizing conservatism itself. The reason why no Democratic politicians have needed to slap down any left-wing nuts since Bill Clinton’s Sister Souljah moment is because no media figure on the left — not Jon Stewart, not Rachel Maddow, not Michael Moore — has anything like Limbaugh’s stature on the right. (Bill Maher may be making a play for that status with his $1 million donation to the Obama campaign, but he still has a ways to go before Democratic politicians start acting in fear of him.) For years, left-wingers have wondered why they haven’t had a Rush Limbaugh of their own. Now they’re seeing the benefits of not having one.
Will Rush survive? This looks similar to the scandal that took down Don Imus, but Rush has more stations on his side (even after some of them have dropped him), and his fans are more devoted to him than Imus’ were. Rush is certainly right that his advertisers can be replaced. Still, if this costs Republicans women’s votes in the general election and Obama is re-elected in the fall, those fans might want to stop and think. And Obama might want to send Rush a nice gift basket.