THE BLOG

Does Conservative Talk Still Matter?

02/01/2008 06:17 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Rush Limbaugh grandly announced on his radio program that he might not support the Republican presidential nominee in this coming election cycle, as none pass his conservative litmus test.

Does anyone care?

I don't mean that as a snide aside. Even among staunch Republicans, does anyone really care what conservative talkers think?

Conservative talkers love to throw numbers around: their ratings and their audience size. And to be sure, they have a sizable audience which numbers in the tens of millions. But having people tune in, and being able to dictate their actions are two different things.

And there are even some in and among the conservative talk community who are willing to admit as much. Last year after the McCain/Kennedy immigration bill crashed and burned a lot of conservative talkers were ready to step up and take credit for bringing the bill down.

But in a piece in the Weekly Standard talk radio host and Republican stalwart Bill Bennett fairly admits that's not necessarily so. Rather than drive the agenda, he says that conservative talkers just "provide a dial tone" over which others will say and do as they please.

And while that may be true of talk in general (and blogging and any other kind of communication) conservative talkers, at least the more high profile ones, seem to take pleasure in the assertion that they are king makers and agenda setters. A myth they turned into reality back in 2000 when Fox News pulled Florida off the board.

But in the intervening eight years conservative talk has made a few mistakes (I rate a few, I'm sure others would rate many). The first being that it was unfailing in its devotion. When even hardened conservatives like Pat Buchanan, Newt Gingrich and Bob Novak among others began to question the administration's policies -- particularly regarding the war in Iraq -- their dissent was not tolerated. Such individuals were branded, in the words of Limbaugh, as having "wandered off the reservation."

Any group that cannot tolerate dissent is not a group, it's a gang. Reasonable Republicans, and yes, I believe there are many of them -- smelled the stink of recalcitrance on the talkers and began to move on. That the Republican Party right now is searching for identity is obvious and reflected in this quadrennial's Republican candidates. As Limbaugh says, not a "genuine down-the-list conservative" in the bunch. That's because Republicans are looking for something else, whether conservative talkers want something else or not.

Secondly, conservative talk has devolved into self parody. There is a place for and a value to high minded conservative discourse. But what started as rants against liberals devolved into sophomoric humor or truly inane observations: that blacks in Harlem can order iced tea without saying "M-F." Song parodies about "Barack the magic Negro." Insensitive homophobic jokes about the passing of young Hollywood actors. On and on, down from there. All that, to a particular mind set, might be vaguely interesting to listen to while stuck in rush hour traffic. But would anyone with any intelligence really turn to such people for even base political insight? That might have worked in the relative peace and prosperity of the Clinton years. It doesn't fly when the nation and the world face such serious challenges. And Once Stephen Colbert hit the scene; conservative talk pretty much had a fork stuck in it.

There is, then, a reason why Limbaugh announced so grandly that he would not endorse any candidate. Not, I suspect, because there truly wasn't a candidate he could back. Rather because even if he did, probably no one would care.