In Defense of Rush Limbaugh

Because somebody has to!

Because someone has to do it!

Limbaugh has gotten into hot water among the sane residents of the chattering classes for saying that he wants Obama to “fail.” And in Blue Blogistan, we have all gotten out the smelling salts, not believing that any could be so unpatriotic. That works as a talking point, and Limbaugh deserves to be a national punching bag (he’s certainly a big enough target).

But there are two strong senses in which it is hardly unpatriotic, and actually completely rational, for a right-winger like Limbaugh to say what he said.

1) Short Term v. Long Term. Suppose that the Bush Administration had taken effective action last summer against the impending mortgage and bank meltdown. Would I have wanted that to succeed? Well, in one sense, yes: no one wants a recession. But in another sense, I would have been disappointed because I believe that Bush’s entire governing philosophy is doomed to fail in the long run, and a “success” in the summer of 2008 would have significantly increased the chances of a McCain Presidency. Similarly, some people might have wanted “failure” in Iraq because they feared that it would only spawn greater interventionism and militarism. Those rooting for Obama’s failure might do so because they believe that over the long run, Obama’s agenda — say, expanded health care, public works, real action on climate change — will bankrupt the country. So they want a failure now to prevent a bigger one later.

At some point, of course, consistent short-term successes might lead someone to question their long term views. As Keynes famously remarked, “when facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Limbaugh is no Keynes, and he wouldn’t change him mind even if confronted by an avalanche of facts. That might mean that he is pig-headed and obtuse. Or it might lead to the second point:

2) Definitions of “success.” Saying that you want Obama to fail may be another way of saying either that you have fundamentally different values than him or that success on Obama’s terms isn’t worth the price. Obama wants the government to guarantee health coverage to all Americans. Limbaugh doesn’t. Obama wants opportunity to be more equally distributed. Limbaugh doesn’t. In terms of price, Obama wants to dampen the threat of climate change, and that will require more government regulation. Limbaugh believes (or seems to believe) that an expansion of regulatory authority would be such an impediment to “freedom” that it isn’t worth it: he’d rather take his chances, as a wealthy person, to buy his way out of climate impacts by perhaps purchasing property in places less affected by it. Or risk it.

The problem, of course, is that it’s difficult for Limbaugh to say these things because most people would regard them as ridiculous. Most people might not be sure that in the long term, Obama’s plans will fail, but given that the Bush-Limbaugh strategy already did fail, they are willing to take their chances, and regard someone who still defends the old regime as something of a loon.

More deeply, Limbaugh’s assertion that increasing health coverage or protecting us from climate change is too much of a danger to “freedom” would be viewed by many Americans as slightly crazy. So he can’t really articulate them in that way, and has to resort to bombast and making up quotations from the Constitution.

Or maybe he can’t because he’s an oxycontin addict. Either way, it’s not an incoherent philosophy; it’s just a deeply unpopular and extraordinarily ugly one.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.