Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh has been inundated with criticism after calling Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown University student who testified before a House committee about contraception, a "slut" and a "prostitute." But while Democrats have fiercely condemned the comments, Republicans' ire has been significantly more muted.
ABC's George Will told me Sunday on "This Week" that GOP leaders have steered clear of harshly denouncing Limbaugh's comments because "Republican leaders are afraid of Rush Limbaugh."
"[House Speaker John] Boehner comes out and says Rush's language was inappropriate. Using the salad fork for your entrée, that's inappropriate. Not this stuff," Will said. "And it was depressing because what it indicates is that the Republican leaders are afraid of Rush Limbaugh. They want to bomb Iran, but they're afraid of Rush Limbaugh."
ABC News political analyst Matthew Dowd said the Republicans' apprehension to say anything negative about the conservative big hitter is based on the "myth" that Limbaugh influences a large number of Republican voters.
"I think the problem is the Republican leaders, Mitt Romney and the other candidates, don't have the courage to say what they say in quiet, which, they think Rush Limbaugh is a buffoon," Dowd said. "They think he is like a clown coming out of a small car at a circus. It's great he is entertaining and all that. But nobody takes him seriously."
While President Obama has denounced Limbaugh's comments as "reprehensible," Republican leaders and GOP presidential candidates have used far milder language.
While Rick Santorum said Limbaugh's comments were "absurd," he said the radio host was an "entertainer" and "an entertainer can be absurd."
"No," Will said about Santorum's response. "It is the responsibility of conservatives to police the right and its excesses, just as the liberals unfailingly fail to police the excesses on their own side."
Rather than criticizing Limbaugh's choice of words, Newt Gingrich instead blasted Obama for "opportunistically" calling Fluke on Friday to thank her for testifying.
When I asked Gingrich on Sunday about what Democrats are calling the Republican "war on women," Gingrich again trained his scorn at the president, saying the issue was really about "religious liberty."
Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan said during the "This Week" Round Table that Limbaugh's comments "confused the issue."
"It played into this trope that the Republicans have a war on women. No, they don't, but he made it look they that way," Noonan said. "It confused the larger issue, which is the real issue, which is 'Obama-care,' and its incursions against religious freedoms, which is a serious issue. It was not about this young lady at Georgetown."
Noonan said Limbaugh's comments were "crude, rude, even piggish" and that they were "deeply destructive and unhelpful."
"It was just unacceptable, he ought to be called on it," she said. "I'm glad he has apologized."
Limbaugh issued an apology to Fluke on Saturday, saying his "choice of words was not the best" and that he did not mean for his "insulting word choice" to come off as a "personal attack."
Gingrich did concede that Limbaugh was "right to apologize."
But even his apology has been scorned. Obama's senior campaign adviser David Axelrod told me Sunday that Limbaugh's "quasi-apology" was based on the same "falsehood" as his original comments, which he said were "predicated on a lie" that taxpayers will have to foot the bill for birth control when in fact insurance companies will pick up the tab.
"I think what Rush Limbaugh said about that young woman was not only vile and degrading to her, but to women across the country," Axelrod said.