Rush Limbaugh can take a winning issue for conservatives and turn it into a loser just by shooting his mouth off. He gives advocates of extreme left-wing policies ammunition for their views by making stupid arguments when smarter arguments exist, and by lacing his arguments with sexism or scurrilous remarks. He did it recently in response to my commentary about Ohio State University’s ridiculously overbroad and intrusive “sexual assault” definition — which seemingly requires students to agree on “why” they are having sex or making out, which is none of the university’s business. And he did it in 2012, when his scurrilous remarks about contraceptive advocate Sandra Fluke being a “slut” and a “prostitute” drove even moderate liberals to support a contraceptive mandate on religious employers that they had earlier opposed (and which the Supreme Court later ruled 5-to-4 violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.)
When the Obama administration required even religious employers to include contraceptives in their health plans in 2012, this initially antagonized some moderate Democrats. That includes the Washington Post editorial board, which has not endorsed a Republican for President since 1952, but which has endorsed moderate Republicans over liberal Democrats for local offices (like endorsing Bob Ehrlich for Maryland Governor in 2006). Even legal scholars who approve of contraception (including me) explained how the requirement violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and it looked to some commentators as if the Obama administration had stepped on a political minefield by not exempting religious employers. But then Limbaugh opened his big, fat, arrogant mouth (his ego is truly titanic), and baselessly called a defender of the contraceptive requirement, Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke, a “slut” and a “prostitute.” These remarks infuriated some moderate female voters (and were offensive to voters of both sexes), and overnight, opposition to the contraceptive mandate was recast by the Obama administration and its allies as being based on sexism, not religious freedom or the rule of law. Overnight, Limbaugh’s remarks made opposition to the contraceptive mandate radioactive, and the Washington Post editorial board and other entities that had criticized the administration later switched position to back the administration after it made cosmetic tweaks to the mandate. It became an integral part of the Democratic Party’s highly-effective “War on Women” meme in the 2012 election. Even social conservatives now admit that this harmed the GOP in 2012.
I do not live in a right-wing bubble, so I predicted the issue would redound to the Democrats’ benefit way back in February 2012. Writing in the Washington Post, I argued the contraceptive mandate violated the RFRA law, but recognized that the mandate would prove popular, observing that “The government must follow the law, even when doing so is unpopular.”
Now, Limbaugh has done it again. He spouted off stupidly after I publicized Ohio State University’s strange definition of “sexual assault.” That definition requires an “agreement” manifesting “affirmative consent” not just before sex but also before “touching” deemed sexual (does anyone ever ask “may I touch your breast” or “may I massage your cl__” while making out? How awkward and unpleasant!). It also contains commentary saying you have to agree on “why” you are having sex.
But instead of focusing on that in his criticism of Ohio State’s policy, Limbaugh changed the subject to asking whether “no” really means “no,” saying “How many of you guys in your own experience with women have learned that no means yes, if you know how to spot it?” He then temporarily backed away from this remark by saying, “Let me tell you something, in this modern world, that’s simply…that’s not tolerated.” But then he returned to the inflammatory subject of “no” supposedly not meaning “no” by saying “It used to be that it was a cliché. It used to be part of the advice young boys were given.”
Liberal blogs like Think Progress, and newspaper blogs had a field day making fun of his comments questioning whether no means no, and using them to imply that the only reason anybody would ever oppose requiring “affirmative consent” is because they are a misogynistic troll like Limbaugh. In response, a columnist at a major midwestern newspaper endorsed the policy as supposedly being “smart” in light of the need to educate people like Limbaugh about consent. (Never mind that Limbaugh is not a college student, and it’s hard to imagine many college students sharing his ancient views.).
As a result, all of my efforts were undone, by a factor of ten. Overnight, a policy that seemed extreme even to liberals I discussed it with became embraced by many liberal commenters at these blogs, partly out of a desire to spite the hateful Limbaugh. It is being used to depict critics of the extreme policy as themselves being extreme.
I carefully laid the groundwork for people to attack the policy, by writing a commentary at this web site, which was picked up by Reason Magazine, Amy Alkon, law professor Glenn Harlan Reynolds, and the civil liberties group the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, all of whom criticized Ohio State’s policy as extreme. I carefully designed what I wrote to appeal to moderate and even liberal readers, but the radioactive Rush Limbaugh then messed everything up by attacking it for a reason unrelated to the policy – his doubts about whether “no means no” – which has nothing to do with the policy. (That’s because the Ohio State policy goes well beyond “no means no” to effectively say that some kinds of non-verbal yes don’t mean yes and to effectively ban some consensual touching and kissing. And because under existing Ohio criminal law, “no” already “means no,” so it was utterly pointless for him to talk about that).
Rush Limbaugh has an amazing ability to firm up the liberal base, increase liberal voter turnout, and make an idiotic left-wing policy look good by making a dumb, sexist argument against it rather than a smart one. People in think tanks and Congressional offices have pointed this out to me in the past, privately, but they won’t say it publicly because no politician or think-tanker who seeks media attention is going to criticize someone like Limbaugh who has a huge radio or TV show. As one conservative pundit (and former Congressional staffer) told me,
No one will dare criticize a hair on his head because he’ll attack the critic on his enormous radio show. That’s why GOP politicians are always having to make groveling apologies to him — just for, e.g., disputing liberal claims that he is the “leader” of the party! even if you don’t criticize him, he’ll attack conservatives to eliminate the competition. No one –NO ONE — will ever use anything but superlatives to talk about Rush. same with O’Reilly. They’ve both done good things, but it’s dangerous to have absolute power. That’s never good. They’ll both have to be carried out of their studios someday because, without a massive tv or radio show, they’d find out who their real friends are. They might even be subjected to a word of criticism! So they get worse and worse, duller and duller, dumber and dumber.
As a result, Limbaugh is increasingly becoming a potent asset for the Left to use against moderates and conservatives in left-wing culture wars.