Crazy as it sounds, the idea that Rush Limbaugh might be the ringmaster of one of the two major party’s primary debates isn’t a hypothetical one. The Washington Examiner‘s Paul Bedard reported today that top Republican officials, including Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, are considering Limbaugh and fellow hyperbolists Sean Hannity and Mark Levin for the presidential debate gig in 2016.
It’s possible, probably likely, that this is another gambit in the RNC’s campaign to use the primary debates as a means of making the media do its bidding. But suppose they were serious, and we get to see Limbaugh ask senators about “slut pills” and how Detroit went bankrupt because of black people. Would that be so bad?
In a certain sense, obviously yes. Limbaugh et al. are cynical extremists who make money by sinking to the lowest of lowest common denominators and dragging the GOP down with them. But I can’t imagine a better group of folks to help answer the critical question of our time: what the hell is wrong with the Republican Party?
Consider the reasons Republican leaders have been giving for putting Limbaugh in charge. “I mean, there’s a lot of good people out there that can actually understand the base of the Republican Party, the primary voters,” Priebus said of Levin and Hannity to fellow radio personality Andrea Tartaros. “The people who are out there talking to grassroots” should ask the candidates questions, offered RNC Communications Director Sean Spicer. So the talk radio audience represents the heart of the Republican Party, according to the RNC.
Are they right? It’s true that both GOP primary voters and talk radio listeners are way older and whiter than the rest of the country. That’s because older white folk tend to be more conservative than basically any other demographic.
But it matters a lot whether the kind of extremist that nods along with Limbaugh’s theory that al-Qaeda gave up bin Laden to help reelect Obama really is the heart of the Republican Party. We know for a fact that the elected Republican Party has lurched way far to the right — this chart of political views in the House of Representatives, from this series, gets the point across nicely:
What we don’t know is why. The explanation I think makes the most sense is that Republican primary voters, particularly in congressional elections, have leapt off the collective deep end, bringing their representatives with them. But data compiled by political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavrek suggests that, in 2008, the Republican primary electorate wasn’t much more conservative than your garden-variety general election Republican voter, suggesting either that the whole party has gone crazy or there’s nothing special about Republican primary voters. The answer to this question matters a great deal, as understanding why the Republican Party has gone insane and what can be done to fix it is arguably the most important question in American politics.
The Talk Radio Inquisition could help resolve the issue. Invariably, Limbaugh et al. will ask the candidates something insane, at which point the candidates will have two options — entertain the crazy or go after it. You can then compare how the candidates that indulged Mark Levin’s batty rant about Obama being a tyrant with those who challenged it after the debate. In the 2012 primary, polls appeared to somewhat impressively track debate performance; Herman Cain and Rick Perry bombed after terrible performances while Gingrich soared after victories. Making the main issue of the 2016 primary debates GOP insanity itself could have a clarifying effect about the GOP primary electorate.
Of course, it’s possible that no candidate would dare challenge the pronouncements of El Rushbo. But that itself would be clarifying.
There’s an ongoing argument in the media about something called “conservative reformism,” a loose basket of proposals for making the Republican Party’s policy positions somewhat less suicidal. The key open question with respect to reformism is who, in the party, would actually push for it. If not a single one of the rising stars likely to run — Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Rand Paul — are willing to go after the most egregious cancers eating at the party, than that’d suggest that there really is no one willing to fix the party. And if one of them tries, and loses because Ted Cruz goes full Limbaugh, then that would tell us what the actual Republican electorate thinks about their intellectuals’ plan to fix them.
The final virtue of a talk radio primary debate would be clarifying what these talk radio guys are all about. No one really knows whether Rush Limbaugh is more extreme, more partisan, or more greedy; does he care more about the Tea Party, the Republican Party or making money? Unless he’s *really* crazy, he’d have to know that talking the way that he normally did would hurt the party in the general election. If he toned it down, we’d learn that Rush was a more loyal party operative than he seems. If he didn’t, we’d learn he’s either a true-believer or deeply, deeply venal. That’s information Priebus would probably want to know as well, seeing as how he only wants debate hosts who are “actually interested in the future of the Republican Party and our nominees.”
But wouldn’t this drive the candidate who could become President too far to the right, potentially doing real harm to the country? Probably not. Whatever candidate made it through would still have to appeal to the general electorate, which is moving further and further left. Any candidate that hoped to have a prayer in the general, absent a 2016 economic collapse, would have to tack hard to the center. Plus, it’s not like what candidates say in a primary debate forces their hand once elected. Remember, Primary Obama opposed the individual mandate.
So bring on Limbaugh, Hannity, and Levin. Heck, throw in Palin and Beck too. They’d make for the first Republican primary debates in recent memory where we learned something.