You can tell a lot about how the news media feel about conservatives by watching how they talk about Rush Limbaugh. They want his influence curbed. They pine for the day his career hits the skids. They're constantly looking for a moment where they can declare that conservatives no longer have - that Rush Limbaugh no longer has - the Grand Old Party in a menacing trance. They don't want Republican candidates seeking a Limbaugh endorsement.
They think they found that moment on January 19.
When McCain won the South Carolina primary, The Washington Post sharply declared the next day that he had "defused conservative attacks, from Rush Limbaugh to Tom DeLay." CNN's Carol Costello sounded boastful a few days later: "Conservative radio talkers bragged their influence helped put George W. Bush in office. How times have changed. Now leading many Republican polls - John McCain. And those same talkers aren't bragging anymore. Voters have betrayed them, despite what's playing on Rush Limbaugh's show."
No one chortled more loudly than that expert on conservatism, former NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw. He proclaimed on "Meet the Press" that the voters of America are now rejecting "dogma," and they are a "nomadic herd" hungering for "solutions" rather than ideology.
Translation? The Reagan ideology is finished (thank God); the conservative movement is gone (good riddance); and happy days are here again, with Republicans embracing Democratic policy prescriptions instead (as they should).
Brokaw doesn't want Republicans to have any troublesome litmus tests to decide which candidate is most conservative, not only because moderates like McCain will fail the test, but because it leads Republicans to pitch campaign promises at that conservative base that the media would like to believe is irrelevant.
"I was listening to Rush Limbaugh for an hour yesterday, who is determined to not have this campaign, as he put it, 'redefine' conservatism," proclaimed Brokaw. "And one of the dittoheads, one of his followers, called and said, 'Well, help me out here. What do I think now about Pat Buchanan and Newt Gingrich?' And it's one of the few times I've ever heard Rush Limbaugh kind of temporarily at a loss for words. And he ended up saying that they're not true conservatives. And that debate is not going to help the Republican Party, if they if they get bogged down in that."
It's funny that Brokaw doesn't think Rush should ever pause before offering a thought. I'm skeptical that Brokaw regularly tunes in to the Limbaugh Institute for Advanced Conservative Studies. I'd take his "I've never heard Rush pause" talk with a cave full of salt. I doubt Brokaw has the intestinal fortitude to listen to Rush for a full hour.
But Rush explained the exchange in different words. He paused before listing where Buchanan and Gingrich have not been consistently conservative because it's not easy to call out people who've "been profoundly instrumental in shaping the views of a lot of people in conservatism, and they both, from issue here to issue there, have, in my terms, wandered off the reservation. So I get somebody calling saying, 'Well, what do you think about these guys?' It's tough to have to say these things. I know both these guys and I like them both."
He wasn't, as Brokaw claimed, saying they weren't true conservatives. He was stating that not every idea they support is conservative. He said Buchanan wasn't really a free-market candidate for president in 1992, and that Gingrich is too willing to get government involved in regulating away "climate change."
Given the intellectual vacuum of the GOP leadership, somebody needs to lead conservatives to analyze the candidate who is truest to their creed. Many talk-radio hosts are taking up that task. So why the hostility toward Rush in particular? Yes, he's the biggest and most influential. But Rush is also uniquely powerful in keeping conservatives from demoralization - a key objective of the liberal media. Conservatives are understandably glum about their erstwhile champions in Washington, so ingloriously surrendering to liberal pressures. The left would like nothing more than to keep conservatives glum. A McCain nomination would go a long way to making conservatives want to stay home and stew on Election Day.
Tom Brokaw offering advice to Republicans about how to win elections is like Rush Limbaugh offering advice to the network anchors about how to stop the bleeding of their ever-declining ratings. It's no doubt heard by the recipient of the unsolicited advice as just so much noise from someone who doesn't really wish you smashing success.
The only difference is this: Brokaw's advice for the Republican Party is terrible. Limbaugh's advice for the networks - try a balanced newscast instead of "drive-by" partisan target practice - would actually be helpful advice. But they'll never accept it.