Limbaugh and friends take the helm for GOP

Growing up as a UCLA fan in Los Angeles, one of my more perverse delights involved listening to arch-rival USC on those happy occasions when the Trojans were losing. That’s because their home-team-hugging announcers were infinitely more entertaining at those moments — oscillating between alibis and depression, wildly lashing out at referees and bad-mouthing the opposition.

Democrats who flipped to Fox News Channel on election night hoping to enjoy a similar sensation were doubtless somewhat disappointed. The cable network sidelined some of its more vociferous primetime stars — most conspicuously Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, who had spent months (ever since he had to change the “Stop Hillary Express” subtitle of his radio show) painting Barack Obama as a cross between Malcolm X and Freddy Krueger.  

Yet with the GOP in disarray — licking its wounds after what the always-restrained James Carville described on CNN as “a drubbing tonight the likes of which we’ve never seen” — the stalwart voices of Hannity and conservative icon Rush Limbaugh become the de facto party out of power. And while O’Reilly said, “There isn’t any leadership in the Republican Party … and I don’t see any on the horizon” on his radio program the day after, that mantle by default passes to Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, the Drudge Report, and the bombastic talk squad.

Limbaugh — who benefited professionally during the Clinton years, even though he won’t concede that — seemed to immediately grasp this. Despite President-elect Obama’s pledge of “I will be your president too” to those who opposed his candidacy, the syndicated host was having none of it, replying to anybody who would suggest Republicans be gracious in defeat — much less advocate conciliation and unity — with a defiant one-word response: “Why?”

“Conservatism didn’t lose last night,” Limbaugh thundered during his post-election show. “Conservatism wasn’t on the ballot.” He then raised the issue of whether votes were stolen in Florida (as if that would have swung the overall outcome) and attacked liberals by saying, “These people live and thrive on rage. It is their fuel.”

Of course, Limbaugh could have as easily been speaking about the ugliest core of his own listener base to which the harshest rhetoric catered. That tone was highlighted by John McCain supporters who booed the mere mention of Obama’s name during his concession speech, and turned off the Democrat’s triumphant address at an Orange County event.

Thanks to the multiplicity of outlets in a “have it your way” media marketplace, these folks will find no shortage of options to console them, whether it’s Fox, Drudge — which was still offering them rays of hope up until the voting’s final hours — or other like-minded websites. Indeed, on Newsmax, the pugnacious Dick Morris blogged words of election-night encouragement to Republicans until nearly 9 p.m. Eastern time, well after most indicators were pointing to a grim night for McCain.

Granted, as is true of the angriest voices on the left, this irritable crowd isn’t necessarily representative of the lion’s share of Republicans, but for all practical purposes, they needn’t be. The nature of audience fragmentation is such that Fox can lead the cable news race in total viewership with 1% of the U.S. population tuning in at any given hour — a confluence of forces that has rendered FNC a more potent enterprise in the near term than the temporarily enfeebled RNC.

While they no longer work together, Limbaugh and Ailes have been united in uphill struggles before. Ailes produced the host’s foray into TV syndication in 1992, which didn’t survive into Clinton’s second term. Although Limbaugh has insisted campaigns are hiccups in his perpetual war against liberalism, it seems undeniable the latest results are good news business-wise to his amen corner of the broadcast spectrum.

On election night, as conservative commentator William Kristol’s neck appeared to recede even deeper into his shoulders, Fox anchor Brit Hume gravely teased into a commercial break by asking, “Republicans in the wilderness: Who will lead them out?”

Godless liberals might not recognize it as such, but the reference is biblical. And for now, anyway, those guys with names like Rush, Roger and Matt? Just call them Moses.

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