Rush Limbaugh, the shock jock who made a deeply insulting and ill-informed comment about the Georgetown University Law School student who believes birth control should be covered under her university health plan, has never been elected to public office. But it is remarkable how he has cowed Republican elected officials who should not only know better, but who also, unlike Limbaugh, have earned the right to be heard on the public stage.
Limbaugh called student Sandra Fluke a "slut" and a "prostitute" for her views on contraception, an issue which is already creating a broader problem for Republican candidates this fall. His reasoning was that since Fluke wanted to be "paid" for having sex, that made her a prostitute. The next day, he accelerated his rhetoric (since the Internet age requires that people say increasingly outrageous things to be heard among the cacophony), saying Fluke should put a sex tape on the Internet as payment for the sex the health insurance company (or the government, as Limbaugh over-simplifies it) was paying for through birth control coverage. He wondered how much sex Fluke was having that she required so many birth control pills.
Of course, the same number of birth control pills is required each month regardless of how much sex the user is having, so that argument is not only ridiculous but bizarrely ignorant in an era when information about basic reproduction is widely available. And if providing birth control coverage enables women to have sex, the same is true of Viagra, which many health policies cover. Limbaugh, notably, was caught with Viagra in his luggage, with the prescription made out to another individual. If the anticontraception crowd believes women should not be able to prevent pregnancy, since sex is nature's way of expanding the population, then maybe erectile dysfunction is nature's way of telling men they are too old or too weak to have sex. Both analyses are insulting, but you can't subscribe to only one of them and remain intellectually honest.
But Limbaugh may not believe in either one, and may well not believe Fluke is a "slut" (what century are we in?) or a prostitute. He said those things deliberately to be provocative, because that's how a radio personality gets attention and keeps his audience. Limbaugh finally apologized to Fluke over the weekend, but the damage—and the benefit—was done. He got a great deal of attention over the absurd "controversy" he helped create.
That's a semi-legitimate excuse for Limbaugh, but it's no excuse for the politicians who were too afraid to take Limbaugh on head-on. Former Gov. Mitt Romney observed that Limbaugh's remarks were not "language I would have used," and urged voter to focus on other issues. That's no way to win a Profiles in Courage citation. Not the language he would have used? If he has to say that out loud, he's in more trouble than we thought. The only defensible response is to blast Limbaugh as despicable, separate oneself from his comments, and remark on the grace of the woman being so horrifyingly slandered. Former Sen. Rick Santorum said Limbaugh was "being absurd" because he is an "entertainer," and Santorum is absolutely right. But he failed to full condemn Limbaugh for his initial remarks. Congressional leaders mildly criticized the remarks, but still did not categorically condemn Limbaugh as they should have done. Rep. Ron Paul was rightly unimpressed with Limbaugh's apology, saying the radio host was just trying to avert more backlash from advertisers. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Limbaugh was "right to apologize," but still missed the point, blaming the "elite media" for exacerbating the controversy. Gingrich, a former paid commentator for Fox, is about as elite a media figure as one can get, and Limbaugh with his many millions of listeners, falls into the same category. So perhaps it was the "elite media" that escalated the situation.
But the disturbing theme is how fearful so many Republican contenders are of alienating someone like Limbaugh, who is a leading voice among a certain category of conservatives. It's difficult to believe that any of the congressional leaders or GOP presidential candidates truly shares Limbaugh's views on Fluke, but they lack the spine to say so. Many of them have criticized President Obama for weak leadership. And yet they are afraid to go toe-to-toe with Limbaugh, even by denouncing comments so absurdly ignorant and antifemale. Perhaps that will assuage the extremist side of the Republican party, but it damages the image of the party as a whole. There are serious, well-informed, and dignified members of the GOP. How unfortunate that the party is losing control of itself to a radical minority. They can do better.