Rush Limbaugh vs. Bill Kristol: Must Good Conservatives Muzzle Themselves?

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Before I tell you about Rush Limbaugh's attack on Bill Kristol, the latest skirmish in an ongoing six-way battle for the character of the conservative movement, a bit of background information: What many movement conservatives hate more than anything is when non-liberals criticize them or the candidates they support. So long as criticism comes from the left, it can be dismissed as opportunistic rants from godless, bleeding-heart Marxists seeking to empower their fellow Democrats. But when a pathology is noted by Ron Paul, or David Frum, or Andrew Sullivan, or David Brooks, or Rod Dreher, or Brink Lindsey, or Kathleen Parker, or Bruce Bartlett, or Peggy Noonan, the idea that it's being offered in bad faith as part of a left-wing conspiracy isn't credible. That's why the people just mentioned elicit the same response from self-appointed ideological enforcers, despite the fact that they're very so different from one another. They must be discredited as operating in bad faith, lest ideologues be forced to debate the merits of their weakest positions.

They're terrified of debating on neutral territory, which is why they never do it.

The implausibility of all critics of movement conservatism acting in bad faith doesn't stop the accusations. The humorous default is to insist that they're just criticizing conservatives because they want to get invited to fancy Georgetown cocktail parties. Back in early 2009, after living in Washington, D.C., for two years, I excitedly moved as far from that city as I could possibly get while remaining in the continental United States, and still I get accused of trying to ingratiate my way into Georgetown cocktail parties, sometimes by people living in inside the Beltway!

Kristol is the rare sort who sometimes uses scurrilous attacks to discredit people, rather than engaging in substantive argument; but who at other times makes comments that run afoul of movement orthodoxy. He shares Limbaugh's comfort with odious means, but while the radio host's ultimate end is the mindless advancement of Team Red (along with self-aggrandizement), Kristol has substantive goals and commitments (and knows that quality work can be packaged with shoddier fare so that the latter is taken more seriously than it deserves to be). He's also unafraid of debating Limbaugh, knowing he'd get the better of the exchange.

Like a lot of people, Kristol pointed out that Mitt Romney's "47 percent" comment was demonstrably incorrect:

It's worth recalling that a good chunk of the 47 percent who don't pay income taxes are Romney supporters -- especially of course seniors (who might well "believe they are entitled to heath care," a position Romney agrees with), as well as many lower-income Americans (including men and women serving in the military) who think conservative policies are better for the country even if they're not getting a tax cut under the Romney plan. So Romney seems to have contempt not just for the Democrats who oppose him, but for tens of millions who intend to vote for him.

It remains important for the country that Romney wins in November (unless he chooses to step down and we get the Ryan-Rubio ticket we deserve!). But that shouldn't blind us to the fact that Romney's comments, like those of Obama four years ago, are stupid and arrogant. Indeed: Has there been a presidential race in modern times featuring two candidates who have done so little over their lifetimes for our country, and who have so little substance to say about the future of our country? 

So Kristol thinks Romney said something stupid and incorrect; asserts it is important to acknowledge the mistake; and nevertheless affirms his opinion that it is vital for America to elect Romney. You'd think that would be a perfectly respectable position even among movement conservatives. There's no way to have an honest movement if disagreement about individual statements is verboten. Yet along comes Limbaugh in enforcer mode to question Kristol's motives:

RUSH: You know, I could be wrong about this, but here's Bill Kristol, who is saying that Romney ... Let me get this quote in front of me. I always put this stuff the bottom of the Stack. Bill Kristol says Romney was "stupid and arrogant," and every Democrat under the sun is retweeting it. On the tape, talking about the 47%, Kristol says Romney was "stupid and arrogant." Every Democrat under the sun's retweeting that all over the place, Donna Brazile and others.

You know what struck me about this? During the primary, all these people -- not all of them, but a lot of the people -- who were telling us, "Romney's the only guy. He's the only chance we've got! Romney's the one," they've bailed. They've bailed on him. Now they're running around saying, "He's not the candidate we thought he was gonna be. He's stupid and arrogant," and all these things. And those of you, you and me, who were said to be problematic during the primaries?
We're the ones supporting Romney! We're the ones trying to do everything we can to help get the guy get elected, because this election's about stopping Obama! This election is about stopping the Democrat Party. This election is very important. It's very crucial. I say it again: I don't think that the inside the Beltway glitterati look at it all that way. I don't think they think anything's really at stake here, except committee chairmanships in the Senate, or control over the federal budget, or finding enough people to tell you they'll go on a cruise with you after the election.

Yes, if not for criticizing Romney this week, Kristol would spend 2013 unable to find anyone to accompany him on the next Weekly Standard cruise, because if there's one thing its attendees demand, it's a host who calls Republicans stupid and arrogant. That Limbaugh's audience doesn't laugh him off the air after nonsense attacks like that is a testament to his technical skills as a broadcaster.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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