Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Politics: From Limbaugh Territory

PLACERVILLE, CALIFORNIA - Okay, so maybe his hometown of Cape Girardeau, Missouri is the real Rush Limbaugh territory. However, every time I drive by the "Rio Linda Next Exit" sign on Interstate 80 just east of Sacramento--particularly if I am listening to him live on KFBK 1530 AM--I think I'm in Limbaugh territory. "For you people in Rio Linda..." he likes to say before launching in to an explanation that he considers obvious. Sacramento's KFBK had been where Limbaugh honed much of his talk radio skills in the late 1980's before going national in 1988.

{As a side note, I always found it amusing that Limbaugh chose as his theme music the Pretenders' "Back to Ohio." While the lyrics are not played, the song is not exactly an ode to the free-market economics espoused by his show. A key lyric: "...my pretty countryside had been paved down the middle by a government that had no pride..." would seem to be the description of a pro-growth Republican administration, not an environmentally-sensitive Democratic one.}

The influence of talk radio, in particular conservative talk radio, has been a topic of discussion since the end of the Fairness Doctrine that required individual radio stations to present both sides of all political topics in 1987. Most think the first real influence of Limbaugh and other political talkers came in the 1992 race--which interestingly led to the election of Bill Clinton, not incumbent Republican George H. W. Bush, who Limbaugh was well-known to criticize for not being conservative enough, nor independent Ross Perot, who may have been closer to the timbre of conservative talk radio than any other candidate.

The subsequent Clinton administration provided Limbaugh and others with ample topics for the ensuing ten years as talk radio soared to its ratings peaks. While on the surface, many of the things about the electorate that Limbaugh claimed during that period seemed to prove true in the 2000 race in which George W. Bush was elected, a deeper look really made that less than clear. The contention that it was necessary to move to the right during a general election might explain why the Republicans eventually won in 2000 and 2004, but why did the last-minute undecideds break substantially for Gore in many states in 2000? It would really seem that the economy was a better indicator of that voter behavior. That Democrats were perceived as some kind of elite might explain an aversion to Al Gore or John Kerry, but that didn't explain the dynamic in many Congressional races. Tax policy positions seemed a better explanation.

When Rush Limbaugh stated during the 2000 race that "a Clinton will be the last Democratic president," there seemed to be reason to believe him. The assumed reference to the possibility of a Hillary Clinton presidency was rather a joke at the time, but the dynamics seemed so against the Democrats, with even Bill Clinton being quite moderate, that it seemed entirely possible that the Republicans could become a permanent majority party. Indeed, they probably could have--had the Bush administration not governed so ideologically that it turned many centrist voters against the Republicans. Now, with the Democrats again having a clear registration advantage, Limbaugh's statement seems absurd.

The irony is that Limbaugh himself is partially to blame. While in eastern Washington state in June, I listened to his show rather frequently for a week and found him to be sadly much closer to the parodies of him done by Harry Shearer and others than the forceful, genuinely funny broadcaster of his prime. On the other hand, I happened to be listening from Toronto during the time around the nomination of Sarah Palin, and suddenly the old Limbaugh energy was back. Yet, while Limbaugh is far from a Christian evangelist, his alliance with the far right of the Republican party seems to be bolstering the same force that is making John McCain unelectable. The fundamental disconnect is that what makes for good talk radio--extreme positions--does not make for good politics.

For those concerned that this might be the last chance to listen to Rush Limbaugh before an election because of a re-imposition of the Fairness Doctrine, I would relax. The media industry needs to make money, and as long as political talk radio continues to make money, they'll lobby to keep their ability to do so. The real competition for radio is no longer other radio stations, but the "new media" like podcasts and YouTube. I can't imagine even an Obama administration and Democrat-controlled Congress trying to re-impose a Fairness Doctrine on radio in the present media landscape. If there's one thing Obama understands, it's the influence of new media, considering how he has used it in his campaign.

I suspect "Back to Ohio" will still be playing at 12:06 Eastern time on many radio stations across the United States in four years.

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