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Why Rush Jumped the Shark

03/04/2012 02:51 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2012

Reading the New York Times' account of Limbaugh's devolution this past week is a little like watching a train wreck:

On the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday editions of his talk show, Mr. Limbaugh attacked Ms. Fluke as sexually promiscuous and politically motivated -- "an anti-Catholic plant," he said at one point.

On Wednesday, he called her a "slut" who "wants to be paid to have sex"; on Thursday, he said she was "having so much sex, it's amazing she can still walk"; and on Friday, after Senate Democrats beat back a Republican challenge to the new policy, he said Ms. Fluke had testified that she was "having sex so frequently that she can't afford all the birth-control pills that she needs."

The lewdness and over-the-top nastiness, of course, are directly attributable to Limbaugh's piggishness and the piggishness he presumes of his listeners.

But what about the cluelessness? Why did it take him so long to realize that he had offended more than the usual cadre of PC elitists and man-hating "Feminazis" -- that the revulsion he inspired was as deep and widespread as it was, and likely to affect some of his sponsors? Partly, I think, because he truly is a misogynist; partly because of his Tea Party ideology.

As I read his apology, I found myself thinking about Theda Skocpol's study The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism.

As summarized in this Times op ed about Skocpol's research, the Tea Party reserves its greatest animus for "freeloaders" -- whether they be immigrants, blacks, welfare recipients, or simply the lazy, undeserving young:

The central tension for the Tea Party grass roots isn't between the Big Brother state and the freedom-loving individual, or between inefficient government spending and effective free markets. Instead, Ms. Skocpol and her fellow investigators argue that "Tea Partiers judge entitlement programs not in terms of abstract free-market orthodoxy, but according to the perceived deservingness of recipients." The fundamental distinction for them is not state vs. individual, it is the division of the United States into "workers" vs. "people who don't work."

Some of those "people who don't work" are the young. Deficit hawks on the think tank circuit like to talk about ballooning government spending on Social Security and Medicare -- programs that benefit the elderly -- as "generational theft." But the Tea Party rank and file, 70 percent to 75 percent of whom are over 45, are concerned about a very different generational struggle.

This is a revolt of the grandparents' generation -- at least the conservative grandparents -- and they are worried the feckless youth are taking over the country and emptying the state's coffers. These young "freeloaders" include the Tea Partiers' own relatives.

Tea Partier Dana Loesch (who told listeners to her radio talk show that she would have "dropped trou" herself in the wake of the controversial video that showed marines urinating on dead Taliban) leaped to Limbaugh's defense via Twitter: "If you expect me to pay higher insurance premiums to cover your 'free' birth control, I can call you whatever I want."

Never mind that Fluke's testimony was about a friend who needed to take the pill for strictly medical reasons. For Limbaugh and Loesch, it was a perfect storm of all the things they hate -- the culture war in general (sex, youth, liberalism, Obama, universal health care), and in particular the freeloading ethos that demands that "personal sexual recreation activities," as Rush put it, be subsidized by tax payers.

Rush will recover, but his stumble has shown the Democrats not just his Achilles heel, but the vulnerability of radical conservatism itself. Sometimes it swallows its own tail.

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