Talk radio: Please, anyone but John McCain

“Right-wing talk-radio hosts are bursting their cheeks,” said The Economist. For more than a decade now, Rush Limbaugh and a growing flock of conservative talk-show hosts have served as the unofficial leaders of the conservative movement. They’ve pilloried Bill Clinton, cheered on George W. Bush and the Iraq war, and whipped up popular resentment against illegal immigration, liberal elites, and affirmative action. But with the Republican Party splintering into warring factions, they face a terrifying prospect. The maverick Republican John McCain, who has repeatedly defied conservative orthodoxy, has emerged from the early primaries as one of the most likely nominees. From Limbaugh and company, the reaction has been nothing short of apocalyptic. If the heretic McCain gets the nomination, Limbaugh thundered, “it’s going to destroy the Republican Party. It’s going to change it forever, be the end of it.”

Naturally, liberals are gleeful, said Peter Wehner in National Review Online. McCain’s resurgence, they think, signals that Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, and other radio conservatives are losing their ability to shape the political agenda. But the critics proceed from false assumptions. Many of McCain’s votes thus far have come from independents and moderate Republicans, not from conservatives in rebellion against their talk-show “leaders.” And if McCain does emerge from this chaotic field, it’ll be mainly because there’s “no compelling conservative alternative.” You’ll note, too, that McCain has been trying to win over his critics by “emphasizing his conservative bona fides,” including his unwavering support for the Iraq war and a newfound enthusiasm for tax cuts. Talk radio may not be as influential as it once was, due to the rise of blogs and other conservative media, said Dean Barnett in The Weekly Standard. Still, Limbaugh has 13.5 million listeners a week, and Hannity, Levin, and Hugh Hewitt have millions more. Those guys have been touting Mitt Romney as a McCain alternative, “and the case they make will sway some of their listeners.”

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