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Why Does Limbaugh Support Mccain?

Zev Chafets' New York Times Magazine cover story on Rush Limbaugh is generally sympathetic and quite good (Chafets' extensive access may help explain why--on both counts--this is the case). Other than some fun gossip about Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, Rush's attitude towards McCain is the most compelling aspect of the story:

I had come to talk to Limbaugh about his role in Republican Party politics. During the primaries he assailed John McCain as a phony conservative and apostate Reaganite. Despite Limbaugh’s best efforts, it now appeared that the Arizona senator would be the nominee. There was speculation that Limbaugh would not support him in November.

“I’ve never even met the man, never spoken to him,” Limbaugh said. “I’m sure there are things about him I’d like if we meet. This isn’t personal.” He then delivered a litany of the presumptive nominee’s personal failings — too old, too intense, too opportunistic, too liberal. But, he assured me, he would be with McCain in the fall. “It’s like the Super Bowl,” he told me. “If your team isn’t in it, you root for the team you hate less. That’s McCain.”


Needless to say, Limbaugh doesn’t see John McCain as the answer to this problem, and it infuriates him when McCain claims to be a Reaganite. “McCain and Reagan do not belong in the same sentence,” he wrote.


Limbaugh has no illusions that this will be the result of the 2008 election. “Real conservatism wins every time it’s tried,” he told me. “But the party has abandoned conservatives as a base. McCain doesn’t want to criticize Democrats; he wants Democrats to vote for him.”

The oddity is that Limbaugh himself makes this strategy possible. Why, after all, should John McCain take the low road, antagonize independents and become embroiled in racial controversy when he can count on Limbaugh to become the G.O.P.’s most-effective unofficial Obama Criticizer?

Chafets' analysis in the last paragraph seems right, but it does beg the question of whether Rush should be backing McCain at all. Not only does his support allow McCain to run what Limbaugh views as a wishy-washy campaign, but his endorsement of the Arizona Senator is just further evidence that one can break with Republican orthodoxy on certain issues dear to Limbaugh's heart and still get his support.

And isn't this the perfect year to sit out the election and say that the Republicans must nominate a Reagan conservative? The risk for Limbaugh would be that McCain wins, diminishing Limbaugh's power in the eyes of the public. But in a year when the GOP looks to be in trouble, why not oppose a nominee that you dislike? That way, if McCain--as seems somewhat likely--goes down in flames, Republicans are much more likely to draw the lesson that they need you, and tailor future nominees more to your liking. Rush may help McCain win this year, but he is not going to push the GOP in a more conservative direction--which is what he claims to care most about. And ironically, Chafets' one example of Limbaugh's supposed influence on McCain just proves this point:

Of course, his problems with McCain won’t prevent Limbaugh from trying to defeat Obama or from trying to push McCain toward his views. Some think he is already succeeding in the latter mission. Mary Matalin, who has a great belief in Limbaugh’s powers of persuasion with the public, said: “Why do you think McCain changed on the immigration issue? Because of his advisers?”

Except, er, McCain is shifting back to the left on immigration already! 

--Isaac Chotiner