Percy Shelley once wrote that poets were “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
The Republican Party also has its legislators, and unless congressional Republicans can turn the country’s dismal view of Congress around, conservative talk show hosts will continue to play the role of contemporary poet as they shape the party’s discursive path.
On Monday, Newsmax magazine rated Limbaugh the most influential talk show host in America. But that honor doesn’t come without a price. With such a large audience, there are bound to be significant blocs of fans supporting different candidates, and each time Limbaugh expresses a preference for a particular candidate, there’s the chance he’ll offend a number of his listeners.
That’s why it was surprising when last month he rated potential 2012 contenders on a scale from zero to 10. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie took top honors, both scoring eight. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was lowest, at four, and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty all scored a six.
The pattern was clear: Limbaugh lumped most of the contenders into one mediocre camp, while reserving special distaste for Huckabee and praise for Palin. And he has, indeed, had distinct praise for Palin since the 2008 election.
His recurrent point is that because she’s been the frequent target of Democrats’ attacks, she’s, ipso facto, the most electable candidate.
“Listen to the Democrats. Sarah Palin — they are trying to destroy … the liberals, the left, the drive-by media — they are telling us who our nominee should be,” Limbaugh said.
And after Palin came under fire from some Republicans when Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell and other Tea Party candidates lost on election night, Limbaugh immediately rose to her defense, claiming that “Republican insiders” wanted to “use this to stop Sarah Palin.” He then promptly proclaimed her the election’s winner.
Even though he hasn’t endorsed her, both Limbaugh’s rhetoric and recent scorecard indicate he’s leaning heavily toward Palin.
Beck, like Palin, has made a point of claiming that he operates outside a party system, and so one might think they would make a perfect fit. Further, the two headlined major rallies together in both Washington and Anchorage before the 2010 election.
But Beck hasn’t tipped his hand nearly as clearly as Limbaugh, and some have noted that his Mormonism might lead him to gravitate toward Romney.
In January, Beck suggested it was a fait accompli that Romney would win the nomination, remarking: “It’s Mitt Romney’s turn. That’s the way it always works with Republicans. They go by turns.”
But later he delivered a harsh indictment of Romney’s healthcare program after President Obama had compared it to his own.
“[Obama’s] defense for an obvious socialist act was: ‘Well, Mitt Romney, he’s a Republican, and he did it, too.’ ”
Beck’s kindest words have been reserved for a candidate seen as a dark horse, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). Earlier this year, Beck told listeners that “he would be my pick” — then, acknowledging his fluid thoughts on the field, added, “I think.”
Whomever his choice, it’s clear Beck is thinking about it, and both he and Limbaugh might have a few listeners to answer to if they don’t pick Palin.
According to a Washington Post poll measuring the preference of both Limbaugh’s and Beck’s listeners, Palin was the overwhelming favorite.
The Two Michaels
As one might expect, Michael Savage has had some of the frankest talk, reacting on his radio show to a hypothetical Palin bid by pointedly questioning her experience:
“She reminds me of a country-western singer with the ‘aw shucks,’ pretending to be a president … we already have a training-wheel president. We don’t need another one.”
After the election, Savage said his pick for 2012 was Jim DeMint — the South Carolina senator with deep ties to the Tea Party movement and with more national experience than Palin.
Conservative talk show host Michael Reagan also weighed in on the field after the midterms. He called Palin “too polarizing” and, in a nod to her loyal fan base, added, “I’ll hear about that on my Facebook page.”
Further, he claimed that Pawlenty and Romney lacked charisma, that Huckabee had a politically incendiary record on commutations and that Gingrich was saddled with personal baggage. The upshot? He hasn’t endorsed anyone.
Uniting against Obama is good business for talk show hosts because it doesn’t splinter conservative audiences. But, as the 2012 season heats up, the unacknowledged legislators of the GOP are going to be increasingly tasked with choosing their champions.
And we’ll all be listening.
Heinze is the founder of GOP12.com. Find his column, GOP Presidential Primary, on thehill.com