Rush Limbaugh's political impotence: Why Jeb Bush's "talk radio problem" is so overblown

Right-wing radio hosts don't have a great record of knocking off Establishment presidential candidates

Published March 24, 2015 3:30PM (EDT)

Rush Limbaugh                         (Jeff Malet,
Rush Limbaugh (Jeff Malet,

Breaking news, hot off the presses: right-wing talk radio hosts don't like Jeb Bush! This latest revelation is fleshed out in a lengthy piece from Politico Magazine. (I only engage in light mockery because I'm a jerk; there's plenty of interesting stuff in it about the Bush family's relationship with Rush Limbaugh over the years.)

Of course right-wing talk radio hosts don't like Jeb Bush. He is the Establishment favorite for the Republican presidential nomination. Right-wing talkers earn their substantial salaries by railing against the Establishment favorite for the Republican presidential nomination, going all the way back, as the piece points out, to the presidential campaigns of Jeb's father. It's just business. Guy comes up and is like, Hey look at me, I'm the Establishment favorite, and the talkers are all, Got it, we'll now act like we hate you because that's what our listeners enjoy. It's the way things are.

The question is whether this is a "problem" for Jeb. The headline is "Jeb's Talk Radio Problem." Headlines are written by editors to maximize clicks, so who knows to what extent the author, Michael Kruse, truly thinks this is a problem. It's not helpful, primary-wise. It would be great to be the Establishment favorite and not have several bloviating hotheads speaking to millions of Republican primary voters each day about how you're the Antichrist, but again, that will never happen for business reasons.

Jeb Bush will not lose the primary because of talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin, because for all the millions of Republican voters who listen to them each day, many more millions do not listen to them. Millions and millions of Republican primary voters think that Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin are charlatans who are bad for the Republican party. These people will be receptive to Jeb Bush!

Talk radio is powerful. It's powerful enough to knock off Establishment candidates in Senate primaries, House primaries, gubernatorial primaries. If there's a race in a district out there that no one's paying much attention to aside from the people listening to talk radio, it can matter. They can pull off a sneaky upset while no one's looking. Ask former House majority leader Eric Cantor.

But in presidential races, the pool of voters is just too big for talkers to have any king-making sway over it. Remember what we were saying about how talk radio has always hated the Establishment pick for the GOP presidential nomination? In each of those cycles, the Establishment pick has won the nomination. Maybe this will be the first cycle since 1964 that the "grassroots" finally upsets the Establishment, but it won't be because talk radio is a crucial new variable.

The talkers themselves would very much like readers of Politico Magazine to think of talk radio as a crucial political force that could, and should, block Jeb's path to the nomination. Their case isn't very persuasive:

“You know what Jeb Bush is? He’s an old-time liberal Republican.” That’s Mark Levin.

“If I had to bet right now, he’d be the nominee; and if I had to bet right now, he’ll lose.” And that’s Laura Ingraham.

This is what people mean when they say the man who would be the third Bush president has a talk radio problem. He has a talk radio problem, conservative activist and writer Brent Bozell said, because he has “a conservative problem.” He has a talk radio problem, Ingraham said, because he has an “electability” problem. “To me,” Ingraham told POLITICO, “Jeb is the easiest candidate for Hillary to beat by far because he divides the GOP at a time when we need a candidate who unifies the party. … He’s made it fairly clear that he believes he can win without conservatives.”

The word "liberal," by any objective measure, should not be applied Jeb Bush. So Mark Levin is just wrong there and lying to his listeners. Laura Ingraham, while not a liar, doesn't have a great political mind, which is why she's a great right-wing talk radio host. "Jeb is the easiest candidate for Hillary to beat by far because he divides the GOP at a time when we need a candidate who unifies the party." What does that even mean? Does she think that half of the Republican party would stay at home on Election Day 2016? The Real Conservatives, especially the Real Conservatives, especially the specific Real Conservatives Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and Laura Ingraham, will show up to the polls and vote for Jeb Bush over Hillary Clinton. Moderate Republicans will too.

What would happen if talkers actually got their way? Then someone like Ted Cruz would be the Republican nominee for president. (Limbaugh considered Cruz's presidential announcement speech "dazzling.") And Ted Cruz really does "divide the GOP" in a way that would hurt it in a general election. Centrist Republicans or independents who lean Republican might not vote for Ted Cruz. He would be considerably more likely to lose to Hillary Clinton than Jeb Bush would. This is not complex political thinking, but it's the dynamic that right-wing talkers wake up each morning telling their listeners to deny.

Jeb Bush will appease these talkers with a few interviews over the course of the primary cycle, and if he wins the nomination they'll all be pulling for him to beat Hillary Clinton. If he wins, Jeb Bush will invite them to the White House for cocktails and they'll love it.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

MORE FROM Jim Newell