The media are all agog over the controversy involving Rush Limbaugh’s insulting comments about Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke.
The conservative shock jock has apologized twice for calling the young woman vile names (which I won’t repeat here) because she testified at a congressional hearing about including birth control in health care plans under the new Affordable Care Act.
Fluke hasn’t accepted Limbaugh’s apologies, which he claims are sincere. But he has a history of saying offensive things and they come amid an exodus of ten sponsors from his radio show, which runs on 600 stations on the Premiere Network.
Limbaugh has the biggest audience in talk radio, an estimated 15 million a week. It’s also the most male (70% plus) and the most conservative (80%), according to surveys. He signed a multiyear $400-million contract in 2008.
Birth control became a campaign issue because Catholic groups and GOP presidential candidates blasted the Obama administration’s efforts to make even religious-affiliated institutions like hospitals and universities offer birth control to employees.
Republicans gained traction with their claims that it infringed freedom of religion, but President Obama came up with a compromise that required insurers rather than the institutions themselves to pay for birth control counseling and devices. Catholic bishops and conservatives are still balking, but the rest of the country has moved on.
This has come back to bite the Republican candidates, especially former Senator Rick Santorum, who has refused to back down from some of his extreme statements. He reflects the very conservative religious views of devout Roman Catholics (like himself) and the Christian right, whose leaders endorsed him earlier this year.
Here’s the problem with Limbaugh, Santorum, and their followers: They want to repeal not only Obamacare but also the social changes of the 1960s and 1970s.
They have constructed a powerful narrative that the counterculture unleashed a tide of immorality—premarital (even marital non-procreational) sex, abortion, feminism, drugs, and gay rights. Liberals and the media are the guiding forces behind this, the story goes, and together they have undermined the family and the country’s moral fiber.
I don’t buy this, but a lot of people do, and they are among the more vocal members of the Republican base. Some 44% of Republican primary voters in 2008 were self-described evangelical Christians to whom social issues are critical.
That’s why GOP presidential candidates, who need these voters to win, have kept largely silent about Limbaugh’s outrageous statements.
But when total unemployment and underemployment hover near 15%, independents and many Republicans are scratching their heads. They simply don’t buy the narrative of social decadence and liberal malevolence that Limbaugh and his ilk are selling and that his listeners devour.
The longer these issues remain in the forefront, the more other voters will sour on Republicans, and the GOP will have lost a real opportunity in 2012.