The Washington Times

Last week in this space, in trying to account for Sen. Tom Daschle’s strange outburst against the nation’s most popular radio talk-show host and by extension, his audience, I referred in passing to Rush Limbaugh as “the last, best villain of the Democratic Party.” Yes, I’d be happy to elaborate.

Mr. Limbaugh needs no defense from me against Mr. Daschle’s charge that the senator’s life and the lives of his family have somehow been threatened at the instigation of Mr. Limbaugh. In the first place, Mr. Limbaugh is perfectly capable of defending himself. In the second place, Mr. Daschle is operating out of the longstanding [though hardly venerable] tradition of American political paranoia. You look for an explanation for your troubles in the sinister machinations of some concealed enemy.

Mr. Daschle’s charge is self-evidently absurd to anyone acquainted with political life. But, of course, not everyone is acquainted with political life. When Al Gore, campaigning in 2000, spoke of defending the people against the “powerful forces” seeking to act on them, I’m not sure even the Gore campaign had a clear idea of what these forces were or thought the vice president needed to specify them. The phrase would presumably be evocative for anyone who felt a powerful force bearing down. Once again, it’s political paranoia – paranoia with a purpose.

Of course Mr. Daschle has received death threats. All prominent politicians receive death threats. Some of them are deadly serious [the anthrax mailed to Mr. Daschle, for example]. And here’s another interesting fact: The death threats tend to come from people who disagree with the politician!

The problem here, however, is not disagreement with the politician. It’s the issuance of death threats. What Mr. Daschle has done is to obscure that distinction, instead deliberately drawing a connection between disagreement and death threats [and anthrax attacks].

Why bring Rush Limbaugh in? Why not, instead, “powerful forces” or Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “vast right-wing conspiracy”? For two reasons: First, Mr. Limbaugh came to prominence during the early 1990s as the nation’s leading non-politician promoter of the “Republican Revolution” of Newt Gingrich. In fact, the huge incoming freshman class of Republicans elected in 1994 made Mr. Limbaugh an honorary member.

Democrats loved casting Mr. Gingrich as villain. But he has been gone a while now. And the successor extremist Democrats had in mind, George W. Bush, hasn’t panned out. Mr. Bush is hard to lay a glove on. Meanwhile, Mr. Limbaugh is as pugnacious as ever, and with many millions of people tuning him in every week, given the givens, he is not so wildly implausible a political target as first seems to be the case.

The second reason is that Democrats have had some success with this line of attack before. Following the destruction of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, President Clinton himself drew a connection between the bombing and the profusion of right-wing talk radio [Exhibit A: Rush Limbaugh] and the Republican Revolution then going on in Congress.

Those of us participating in the “revolution” at the time knew that what we were talking about was not, in fact, a revolution. Certainly not in the sense of blowing up buildings. But following the April bombing, we were indeed obliged to explain that Timothy McVeigh had nothing to do with any cause we were part of. For those of you who may have missed the experience, it was not enjoyable.

The difference between then and now is that the air and the airwaves are no longer full of that triumphalist revolutionary rhetoric characteristic of the mid-1990s [and the objective correlative for the Democratic charge of “extremism”]. Rush Limbaugh is now [as he was then] a thoroughly mainstream conservative. But the location of the mainstream has shifted, such that George W. Bush is now its face, not Mr. Gingrich. I’m not sure Mr. Daschle understands this very well. For him, it’s still 1995.

There is also an ironic aspect to Mr. Daschle’s effort to cast Mr. Limbaugh as the right-wing bogeyman. In fact, far from being a representative of the extremist fringe, Mr. Limbaugh then and now has been a major force for policing the debate on the conservative side of the political spectrum. As, by far, the most influential conservative commentator, he has substantial de facto authority to set the bounds for respectable conservative opinion. He has used it to exclude all sorts of far-right views, especially those of the conspiracy-minded [speaking of political paranoia].

This matters. Mr. Limbaugh sees no good in Democrats, but then again, partisans tend not to, and there is no shortage of partisan Democrats who see no good in Republicans. If you need to share some of Mr. Limbaugh’s politics in order to find his jokes funny, as I do, then so be it. His more serious role, fully comparable to the role William F. Buckley Jr. played in the 1950s by denying the John Birch Society and other fringe figures a place in National Review, has been to set the boundaries of respectable conservative discourse by using reason as the standard for admissibility.