This week, conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh passed away at the age of 70 from complications related to lung cancer. His show aired on almost 600 radio stations and reached tens of millions of listeners every week. Indeed, there has been no shortage of outstanding tributes to the undisputed king of talk radio from conservative pundits and commentators. However, as someone who came of age politically in the 1990s, I have some insight about how Rush Limbaugh had a truly profound impact on the political thinking of countless Generation X conservatives like myself.
I graduated high school in 1993 and I took an interest in Rush Limbaugh’s radio show that summer. It is difficult to explain to young conservatives how Rush Limbaugh truly dominated conservative political commentary around that time. Keep in mind, internet browsers were not widely used until the mid-1990s, most conservative websites did not start receiving considerable traffic until the late 1990s, and Fox News did not launch until 1996. As such, if you wanted fast conservative commentary on a breaking news issue, Rush Limbaugh’s weekday radio show was often your only option.
And Rush delivered! In 1993, the new administration provided plenty of fodder for discussion. Frequent topics included the stimulus package, the tax increase proposal, the Crime Bill, the appointment of Jocelyn Elders as Surgeon General, and of course the Clinton Health Care plan. Interestingly, even though Limbaugh was a consistent thorn in the side of the Clinton administration, they realized his influence and even reached out to him to ask him to generate support for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Overall, during his three-hour-long radio show, Rush consistently provided commentary that was simultaneously incisive, hard-hitting, and entertaining. He showed that talk radio was an effective mechanism for bypassing the mainstream media and promoting conservative ideas.
Furthermore, Rush’s timing could not have been better. Even though his radio show had been syndicated nationally since 1988, his influence was at its peak in the early 1990s. This was a difficult time for conservatives and Republicans nationally. Many conservatives were rightfully disappointed when President George H.W. Bush signed a tax increase in 1990. Additionally, many thought the tax increase and President Bush’s lackluster response to the early 1990s recession resulted in the election of Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992. Though the political obituary of the conservative movement has been written countless times, many conservatives were genuinely concerned about their prospects moving forward.
Additionally, many prominent voices saw Clinton’s election as evidence of a leftward shift in the electorate and encouraged Republicans to compromise. However, during this time, Limbaugh preached principled opposition. He convinced many Republicans that the 1992 election was in no way a repudiation of the Reagan Revolution. Indeed, Limbaugh convincingly argued that Reagan's presidency was a success and that conservatives owed it to themselves to defend Reagan’s legacy. Furthermore, Limbaugh demonstrated that the conservative ideas which made Reagan a successful president enjoyed broad public support.
In the end, Republican elected officials effectively opposed efforts by the Clinton administration to shift public policy to the left. Every Republican congressman and senator voted against the 1993 budget which contained tax increases on both income and gasoline. Furthermore, Republican opposition to the Clinton health care plan played a pivotal role in its defeat. In 1993 and 1994, the Republicans successfully portrayed the Democratic Party as the party of high taxes, bureaucracy, and big government. Though many thought Republicans would do well in the 1994 midterm elections, the fact that Republicans won majority control of the U.S House of Representatives for the first time since 1955 stunned many political observers. Indeed, the success of many Republican congressional candidates and the rightward shift of the Republican Party is in no small part due to Rush Limbaugh’s talents behind the microphone.
As time went on, I became busier and had less time to devote to conservative talk radio. Furthermore, the internet and the proliferation of conservative websites provided an even faster source of conservative commentary and analysis of current events. However, I still have fond memories of that summer of 1993. I spent many afternoons anticipating my freshman year of college while listening to Rush Limbaugh on KDKA 1020 AM at my parents’ house in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I can honestly say that Rush Limbaugh introduced me to conservative ideas and I never looked back. Thanks for the memories el Rushbo, we will certainly do our best to carry the torch in your honor.
Michael New is a Research Associate at The Catholic University of America and an Associate Scholar at the Charotte Lozier Institute. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New