Very few people entered this election cycle with more street cred with conservatives across the country than Rush Limbaugh. That credibility has been earned over nearly 30 tireless years on the radio, bringing Rush for many years the biggest audience in talk radio and spreading the conservative message even to many listeners who don't agree with him but enjoy him as an entertainer. He's probably the only single commentator who can reach a significant fraction of the national GOP voting base all by himself. And on yesterday's show, Rush did Marco Rubio a very big favor in reminding that audience that Rubio is a real conservative.
Rush To Trump
To grasp the full context, in case you have not been listening lately, Rush has - there is no other way to put this - deeply disappointed a lot of long-time listeners and fans by lending credibility to the campaign of the very un-conservative Donald Trump as a vehicle for conservative discontent with the GOP establishment throughout this race, despite the many reasons why he is an unsuitable candidate for the job. We at RedState have long had a lot of respect for Rush, whom many of us grew up listening to; Erick has guest-hosted for him on several occasions, and he has read some of our posts on the air from time to time and generally been very gracious towards this site. As much as it pains us to do so, a number of us have also explicitly or implicitly criticized the sometimes-implausible defenses Rush has offered for Trump (see here and here). Without speaking for the other Contributors, if some of those criticisms have been harsh, it is only because of the importance of Limbaugh and the danger of Trump, and they have been offered with a heavy heart against the words of a longtime ally.
Why has he been doing this? Rush is way beyond the point of his career where he can be bullied (as Trump has attempted unsuccessfully with Mark Levin) or bribed, but Rush has always been an entertainer first and an advocate second, and Trump is nothing if not good entertainment. He has clearly reveled in some of the enemies in the GOP establishment that Trump has made, some of whom are undoubtedly enemies worth making. He may see in Trump something of himself, a guy who blazed his own trail where one did not exist before (in the age of the Fairness Doctrine, there was nobody quite like Rush Limbaugh on national radio before the late 80s). And sometimes the simplest explanation is the best: Rush and Trump are friends and golf buddies, and there are worse reasons to be wrong than giving your friends the benefit of the doubt. As I've said before, in politics you can judge a man's virtues by his enemies and his vices by his friends. I'm reminded of what the great baseball writer Bill James once said - after writing a stinging takedown of Tigers first baseman Enos Cabell - about the hazards of being an insider:
You may not believe this, but Cabell and I have friends in common...He apparently has taken my remarks about his abilities in stride, and left an unfriendly but good-natured gesture with an intermediary. Public life is rougher than you think it is; you learn to accept those things. Everybody tells me that Enos is a hell of a good guy, and you know, you can tell he is. His abilities being what they are, would he be in the major leagues if he wasn’t? Tom Reich insists that if the Tigers don’t re-sign Enos, it will cost them 10 games next year because they’ll lose Enos’ steadying influence on some of the other players. I don’t deny it; I just don’t have any way of knowing about it. I’m an outsider. And I find that the closer I get to becoming an insider, the harder it is to resist their distortions and misjudgments. So I spray a little acid around, make a few enemies. It helps keep me honest.
That said, Rush is (quite rightly) a fan of Ted Cruz, and has at times thrown a flag at Trump for unfair attacks on Cruz. Like Levin, he has lately been critical of Trump not just for attacking Cruz but for using Democrat-style language and messages to do so.
Rush on Rubio
All that is to say that a lot of the anti-establishment (or just had-it-with-the-establishment) conservatives who have been listening to Rush are the same people now taking another look at Rubio, but with a lot of skepticism due to the fact that Rubio's strategy has involved gathering up the support of the various establishment candidates (Jeb, Kasich, Christie), many of whose supporters are in turn skeptical of Cruz. And at the same time, a lot of Rubio supporters have been pretty turned off by the things Rush has said about Trump, and some are basically spurning any kind words Rush has for Rubio at this stage.
But Rubio supporters would do well to recognize that Rush still has a ton of credibility with precisely those voters who are starting to sour on Trump and are taking a more serious look at Cruz and Rubio, and should take his words as a blessing (that's clearly what the Rubio campaign is doing). As streiff noted yesterday, Rubio does seem to have picked up a bunch of last-minute support in Iowa from voters who most of all wanted a candidate who could win in November. And Rush wants that too - like many of us, he was vocally unhappy with the nominations of John McCain and Mitt Romney, but went after Obama hammer and tongs in the general election season nonetheless. If he's saying good things about Rubio now, that's partly because he recognizes that Rubio may well be the nominee and Trump may be fading (both things that were in question before Monday night), and partly because he genuinely feels that Rubio would be a more acceptable nominee for anti-establishment conservatives than the last two duds:
I don't like this idea that Marco Rubio is all of a sudden being labeled as an establishment candidate. I know that Rubio's got the baggage of that 'gang of eight' bill. And I know that in many people's minds, he's got the baggage of wanting to grant the current number of illegals citizenship. I understand that. But I'm here to - Marco Rubio is no moderate Republican centrist. I'm not - I could sit here like anybody else could and try to make explanations for you of why he did the gang of eight. But I'm not even going to try to put words into his mouth. I don't want to be seen as making excuses. I'm just telling you, I don't see Marco Rubio as anything other than a legitimate, full-throated conservative. Nobody's pure and nobody is ever free of making mistakes.
I have - I know Senator Rubio... I know these people, I know that Senator Rubio is [in] the Senate, in many ways he agrees with Cruz, but...he's just worn out with the Senate...I heard this from Allen West, when he left the House, the incumbents, all they care about is getting re-elected. You go there, to really make a difference, and you're run into brick wall after brick wall after brick wall. And I don't think Rubio wants to stay there 30 years to break through the wall to get a committee chairmanship or whatever. I don't like this idea that we're all of a sudden going to make Rubio the establishment bad guy, as though Rubio is no different from the McCains, and the Bob Doles, and the Romneys, and the others that have come along and been nominated by the establishment. He just isn't.
That's not an endorsement of Rubio over Cruz. But it should reassure a lot of people that Rubio is not a moderate, establishment candidate just because he's trying to win the votes of moderate and establishment voters. And some of his more vocal supporters should put aside their grudges at Rush and take a sincere compliment for what it is.
A good window on exactly what segment of the party Rubio represents can be seen in the endorsements he has been getting lately. While some are old war-horses like George Allen and George Pataki, two big ones are South Carolina Senator Tim Scott (following his fellow South Carolinian Trey Gowdy) and (just reported today and not formally announced) Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey. Scott and Toomey are sitting U.S. Senators and Toomey is running for re-election in blue Pennsylvania, so they may not fit everyone's definition of 100% purity, but both are younger, forward-looking conservatives elected with a lot of Tea Party support who want to actually get some things done in Washington and grow the GOP coalition. Scott's pitch is very explicitly about Rubio's electability and their common humble origins stories:
Bit by bit, along with today's epic meltdown from Trump, we are moving in the direction of a three-man race that realistically will be won by either Rubio or Cruz. Rush has reminded his listeners that a race where Rubio is the guy the establishment has to settle for is a race conservatives have already won.