In an appearance before the University of Pennsylvania’s College Republicans on Monday, influential Republican strategist Frank Luntz blamed popular conservative talk radio show hosts Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin for hindering the Republicans’ efforts to build an acceptable compromise with Democrats on immigration reform. Luntz lamented that Gang of Eight member Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was “getting his ass kicked,” and was “getting destroyed” by the two talk show hosts, all because he “is trying to find a legitimate, long-term effective solution to immigration that isn't the traditional Republican approach.”
Luntz had been speaking in what he believed to be an off-the-record context, but student Aakash Abbi was secretly recording him on his iPhone.
The comment was made in the context of Luntz’s broader message that conservatives, especially the GOP, have a terrible messaging problem. Luntz said, “We can’t talk to 51% of America,” likely alluding at least partly to the recent flow of offensive statements made by various Republican politicians about rape and abortion, and Limbaugh’s derisive labeling of Sandra Fluke as a “slut.”
Luntz is no stranger to critiquing the conservative movement’s messaging and imaging. This January, he wrote an op-ed for the Washington Times in which he explained how many people perceive the Republican Party (not positively), and suggested a few rhetorical tactics to improve the party’s image. Two years ago, in the midst of the Occupy movement, Luntz told the Republican Governors Association that they should speak of “economic freedom,” as opposed to capitalism; in response, Rush Limbaugh apparently accused Luntz of “trying to ‘dumb down’ the conservative message.”
Is Luntz correct about Rubio getting his ass kicked, and is he right to blame conservative talk radio? Yes and no. It isn’t clear what Luntz meant regarding Rubio’s supposed figurative ass-kicking. Limbaugh did recently interview Marco Rubio on immigration reform, during which Limbaugh said:
"I just don't understand this, senator. I don't understand why we're doing something that the Democrats are salivating over. I've never agreed with Senator Schumer about anything and I'm being told that I should on this. I'm just having a tough time. I look at what happened in California after the last amnesty. We lost that state to the Democrats. I'm having trouble seeing how this benefits Republicans."
The remainder of their conversation was civil and consisted of a discussion over various issues relating to immigration reform, during which Limbaugh, who is skeptical of the bill, put Rubio on the defensive but came nowhere close to “kicking his ass.” Perhaps Luntz was referring to a National Review reporter’s description of Rubio’s attempts to woo conservative talk-show hosts at a recent summit. Robert Costa, Washington editor for the magazine, shadowed Rubio at the event, and details the awkward, somewhat hostile encounters Rubio had with numerous talk-show hosts. Yet according to a recent poll, not only do the majority of Republicans support the Gang of Eight’s bill, but conservatives are more likely than liberals to support the proposal.
If these results continue to be replicated in other polls, it might say interesting things about the influence of conservative talk radio, especially if major hosts like Limbaugh continue to be skeptical. Most talk-radio listeners are unlikely to be mindless sheep, only repeating the talking points they hear from talk radio, although plenty do just that. But if there is substantial popular support for the Eight’s proposal among conservatives, this could be a sign that conservative talk radio’s grip on popular opinion is not as firm as many think.
That said, Luntz is right to be wary of conservative talk radio, as it is a double-edged sword: incredibly powerful, but likely to cut conservatives as well as their opponents. On one hand, talk radio provides a forum for news analysis and discussion in an engaging manner; radio hosts command large audiences as devoted, if not more so, than fans of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. But whereas the Comedy Central duo skewers the right, talk radio is easily the domain of conservatives, serving as an alternative to the mainstream news outlets which conservatives often perceive as hostile. As such, talk show hosts are not simply entertainers, but the vox populi, champions of the common people, or at least “everyday conservatives.”
But entertainers they are, first and foremost, and the tried-and-true methods of entertainment used by these hosts include sensationalism and a confrontational attitude — not exactly traits that encourage honest, respectful, critical discussion. Add to this the fact that compromise is nowhere near as exciting as holding firm to principled positions, and you have a recipe for a poor approach to political discourse. Though we should all be principled, we should also realize that principles are meant to guide decisions, not (usually) commit us to absolutist, inflexible positions.
If Republicans, and conservatives in general, want to see their ideas become more popular, they need to be especially careful with how much they let talk radio figures influence them. For their part, conservative radio hosts would do well to heed Luntz’s concerns about messaging and seriously reflect on how they can improve the right’s image.