By John P. McCormick for RealClearPolitics
Here in the chattering class we cling to our polling data and our supposed skill at forecasting. Sometimes, though, we’re oblivious to force vectors that tip elections (see 1948, 1980, 1994, 2010 and 2016). I wonder whether, last week, we overlooked a vector possibly crucial in 2020: Rush Limbaugh’s disclosure that he is dying.
The news came and went in a day. Limbaugh, whose 70th birthday barely precedes the January inauguration, framed his lung cancer prognosis as non-negotiable: “Stage Four is, as they say, terminal.”
For 15 million listeners and another few million Internet readers who catch up after work, Limbaugh’s death will end his more than three decades of influence on U.S. politics and policy debates.
For now, though, Limbaugh is rocking the airwaves, making the most of his final days. Which prompts a question that got little oxygen last week: How many Americans in the Limbaugh diaspora will use their votes for presidential, Senate and House races to repay their debt to the broadcaster? Will those loyalists win one last election for Rush?
That debt traces back to the early years after his national syndication in 1988. Million by million, listeners got more from their radio speakers than whatever Limbaugh said into his microphone: They learned that while they might be ideological outliers in their families, their workplaces, their schools or their neighborhoods, they weren’t alone. They were part of something much bigger than themselves. Right-of-center Americans who long had felt isolated now were part of a fervent community that gathered for daily liturgy.
Limbaugh was clear-channel and clear-message: With a middling voice and a cocky smile his listeners could hear if not see, he nurtured unity and pride. Americans now could call themselves conservatives without evoking Goldwater die-hards still holed up in caves. On Limbaugh’s show, the heady Reagan epoch never ended.
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I stumbled across Limbaugh on KSTP-AM from St. Paul while driving across Minnesota’s Iron Range. That day, by happenstance, he teased my Newsweek friend and colleague Eleanor Clift with a wry comment that I can’t recall but that Ellie enjoyed. The guy was clever. Capable of understatement, if you can believe it. Engaging.
Back then in Middle America, it still was common to step onto a factory floor, or into a ranchers’ sale barn, or across a Main Street threshold, and hear an always-on news/talk radio station. Some listeners liked Limbaugh, others loathed him. But gradually and then all at once, Limbaugh made himself the talk of a nation.
How much of that influence endures? We’re about to learn. Last week, after revealing his death sentence, Limbaugh tweeted, “What can I do Rush? I hear this often. What you can do is tell as many in your community about the vital importance of voting. Help them understand that it is a great freedom to be able to vote in our country. Your vote matters!”
Soon he was trying to parlay each of those votes into two: “Happy Sunday morning out there,” he tweeted. “Who can you talk to today to help them see the light? Operation Turn A Democrat is in full swing! Push back against the same old tired narratives. ALL Americans will benefit from President Trump’s policies.”
Your results may well vary. But that’s not the point.
The point is that Rush Hudson Limbaugh III has sounded one last trumpet. And every politician running for president or for a job on Capitol Hill knows that 15 million, plus a few million more, makes an eye-catching number of potential voters.
Maybe some of those Americans recall how a radio talker from Cape Girardeau, Mo., taught political nobodies to be somebodies.
If they now rise up to repay Limbaugh, they won’t prolong his life. They could, though, give him one last win. And they surely would hear one last smile.
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