Someone should send Rush Limbaugh a thank-you note. His slutstorm moment may be slowly fading from the headlines. But it could well linger on as a defining factor in this American election campaign. Let’s hope so.
Third-year law student Sandra Fluke, thoughtful, decorous and articulate, may have entertained dreams of making history one day. You have to think big to be able to testify, in this overheated climate, about contraception in front of Washington lawmakers.
But she could not possibly have imagined the public furor that engulfed her and her campaign to have her Jesuit university cover the cost of birth control in a health insurance package, after Mr. Limbaugh, the most powerful conservative radio host in the country, viciously called her a “slut” and a “prostitute” on air, accused her of wanting to be paid to have sex, and demanded that the least she could do is post videos of her sexual encounters online.
This vile, misogynist tirade, sexually loaded and just plain loopy in its logic, was so tepidly condemned by the GOP front-runners (Rick Santorum, the Fred Flintstone of women’s issues, called it “absurd” and Mitt Romney strapped another dog on his campaign roof by declaring “those aren’t the words I would have used”) that it might have provided the ultimate moment of despair for those who believe women’s rights are dangerously under assault in America.
Instead there has been a Twitter-led tidal wave of outrage and pushback. It won’t topple Mr. Limbaugh, but it has done him and the Republican retrograde campaign against women significant damage.
Conservative commentator David Frum wrote that public discourse had finally reached the bottom and has nowhere to go but up. In a good sign, a reported 40 sponsors – including, fittingly, a mattress company – have so far pulled out of Mr. Limbaugh’s show. And President Barack Obama has played the daughters’ card cannily.
The President first telephoned Ms. Fluke to tell her that her parents should be proud of her, and then in a rare press conference that focused on such weighty issues as Iran and gas prices, Mr. Obama took time to invoke his own daughters, Sasha and Malia, and his hope they will one day have the courage to speak out about issues they believe in without being subjected to such a verbal onslaught.
Framing this incident around his daughters was the pitch-perfect thing to do. I have a grown daughter, and because of her, my own reaction to Mr. Limbaugh’s rant was a volcanic level of disgust and rage that shocked even me.
After all, contrived controversy is how Mr. Limbaugh makes his living, and shouldn’t this episode be disregarded as such? For this very reason, I did enjoy journalist Ashleigh Banfield braying on CNN to Mr. Limbaugh to “shut your cake hole!” and in another instance, Mr. Limbaugh being derided as “a gutless loser.” On The Daily Show, he became Extremely Loud and Incredibly Gross.
There is also, let’s face it, a double standard when it comes to the use of the world “slut.” Anyone remember Slutwalk, the feminist marches of last year that proclaimed a woman’s right to dress and act as she pleased?
It’s not as if the left is above attacking right-wing women. For instance, former GOP vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who was a legitimate target because of her ill-preparedness for office, should not have been subjected to ad hominem sexist barbs about her motherhood, the legitimacy of her fifth child, and her sexual appeal.
But there is something so creepy and prurient about the conservative focus on women and sexuality. Mr. Limbaugh’s multitude of followers, and Mr. Santorum’s Tea Party base, have in effect been pushing for control of a woman’s sexuality in a way that is entirely contrary to all other Republican “get the government out of our lives” mantras.
They need a Pierre Trudeau to remind them the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation. But they won’t find one in their ranks because, for them, all social issue roads lead to abortion.
There is only one way this heavy-handed approach to women and their reproductive freedom will return to being a fringe issue: How it plays with voters.
On CBC Radio’s The Current this week, host Anna Maria Tremonti interviewed Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who says the latest figures show that every time these social issues are put front and centre, the GOP takes “a tremendous pasting” with women voters. He says his latest poll, released this week on NBC and in the Wall Street Journal, shows that a majority – 56 per cent to 37 per cent – of women voters, including the so-called suburban soccer moms, prefer Obama and the Democrats.
These numbers will change and social issues will likely not loom as large as the economy by the election next fall. Even Barack Obama was smart enough, in coolly countering Mr. Limbaugh, to say that American women would make up their own minds about which party had the most to offer them on the economy and other issues.
But make no mistake. Rush Limbaugh, with his ugly attempt to sexually discredit Sandra Fluke, infuriated women – and men – everywhere, Democrats and moderate Republicans alike, who care deeply about how their own daughters are treated in the public sphere.
His tirade may turn out to be the ultimate donation to the Democratic cause.