How powerful is Rush Limbaugh? Well, powerful enough to make Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, apologize for calling the radio host a mere “entertainer.” Possibly powerful enough to cost Steele his job.
But powerful enough to force President Obama to debate him? You'd think that would be highly unlikely, but as we found out this week, the White House is going to do everything in its power to keep Limbaugh at the forefront of public consciousness.
The Politico's Jonathan Martin had the scoop: Top Democrats believe they have struck political gold by depicting Rush Limbaugh as the new face of the Republican Party, a full-scale effort first hatched by some of the most familiar names in politics and now being guided in part from inside the White House.
The strategy took shape after Democratic strategists Stanley Greenberg and James Carville included Limbaugh's name in an October poll and learned their longtime tormentor was deeply unpopular with many Americans, especially younger voters. Then the conservative talk-radio host emerged as an unapologetic critic of Barack Obama shortly before his inauguration, when even many Republicans were showering him with praise.
Soon it clicked: Democrats realized they could roll out a new GOP bogeyman for the post-Bush era by turning to an old one in Limbaugh, a polarizing figure since he rose to prominence in the 1990s. Limbaugh is embracing the line of attack, suggesting a certain symbiosis between him and his political adversaries.
This week's major offensive in Project Rush was an Op-Ed article in The Washington Post by David Plouffe, the Obama campaign manager, titled “Minority Leader Limbaugh” and warning the G.O.P. that if it “sticks with its strategy of failure as the only option, further eroding its brand with the people who decide elections, we may find out what it means for a political party to hit rock bottom.”
As the White House goes on the attack, Republicans are debating which they need more right now: a big audience or big ideas. Democratic strategist Paul Begala, one of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel's inner circle, got off a shot of his own, telling The WaPo's Perry Bacon Jr. that “Rush is the bloated face and drug-addled voice of the Republican Party,” and that “along with lots of others, I intend to continue to turn up the heat until every alleged Republican either endorses or renounces Rush's statement that he hopes our president fails.”
Republicans in Congress took this as a call to arms: Senator John Cornyn said turning the White House guns on a talk-show host “reeks of hypocrisy coming from a president who campaigned against these very cynical political tactics last fall” and Rep. John Boehner got his own nook of the Post's Op-Ed page to insist that “President Obama has said that we must change the way Washington operates in order to address the unprecedented challenges of today. I hope that those inside and close to the administration begin heeding his advice, because the change-the-subject campaign they are employing is the oldest trick in Washington's book.”
For the Opinionator, this raises two big questions: First, is Team Obama hitting below the belt? Second, and more important I think, what is Limbaugh's role in Republican politics?
On the first point, Amy Holmes of the Corner had the week's most effective condemnation. And, once again, the media is back to the old storyline as typified by a cynical op-ed in the Washington Post by Obama strategist David Plouffe titled, “The Minority Leader Limbaugh.” In it, Plouffe calls Eric Cantor, the popularly elected and highly talented Virginia congressman, a Limbaugh ventriloquist. Why? Well, a lot of statistics are thrown around in the piece, but the real reason is because the young, handsome, Jewish-American politician is a threat. He undermines the Democratic caricature of conservatives as “angry, middle aged, white males” with “angry, middle aged ideas.” Indeed, young voters might look up and see a new and diverse generation of Republican leaders who, to use a popular liberal phrase, “look like us.” Can't have that! So, Cantor has to be marginalized and Limbaugh touted as the true leader of the Republican party.
Imagine, for a moment, if George Bush and his chief of staff had made coordinated and concerted attacks on Michael Moore, and suggested that the colorful left-wing fulminator — not Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid — was the “true intellectual force” behind the Democratic party. Imagine the howls of protest. And, undoubtedly, the media would have focused on the propriety of a commander-in-chief and his advisers wasting time and political breath on an entertainer. And yet we have President Obama and his hammer, Rahm Emanuel, doing just that in a time of war and economic crisis, and the story is about … Republicans!
(Indeed, Democrats may want to be careful about tarring political opponents with their associations with talking heads; D.L. Hughley's comment that the Republican National Convention “literally look[s] like Nazi Germany” and recent speculation by Janeane Garafalo and Keith Olbermann that “Eva Braun, Hitler's girlfriend … is exactly the type of woman that responds really well to Rush” show that plenty of liberal talkers share Limbaugh's abrasiveness, if not his talent.)
Salon's Joan Walsh, who insists that Limbaugh was “hopped up” at the Conservative Political Action Confrence last week, thinks the hypocrisy is on the other foot:
Terrified Republicans are trying to have it both ways:Keep the divisive Limbaugh on his big white pedestal, while blaming Democrats for saying he's their party leader.
But come on: Did Nancy Pelosi make Rep. Phil Gingrey apologize to Limbaugh last month for criticizing him? Did Howard Dean make Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele crawl to Limbaugh exactly 51 minutes (according to “Hardball”) after Limbaugh attacked him on his radio show yesterday, and say he hadn't meant to call Limbaugh's behavior “incendiary” or “ugly”? Is Harry Reid the reason it's impossible to find one, even one, Republican to criticize Limbaugh on the record — without then racing to kiss his ring and apologize?
It's Tom DeLay, not President Obama, who is now designating Limbaugh as his party's “role model.” Jim Geraghty at the National Review takes umbrage over the repeated references of Begala and others to Limbaugh's painkiller addiction:
Here's the thing: If Rush is an “addict”, then the President of the United States is a “cokehead.”Both men have had issues with consuming mind-altering substances in violation of the law in their past; both have overcome those past experiences and gone on to lead productive and successful lives. (Rush, in fact, managed to do so while overcoming a near-miss with a loss of hearing, a tortuous development for a man whose entire livelihood is in radio.)
(If our friend Larry Kudlow enters the Senate race in Connecticut, I would not be surprised to see others who have no problems with Obama's past drug use try to argue Kudlow's past experiences are disqualifying.)
So I'll ask our friends on the other side of the aisle to refrain from using the term “addict” in reference to Rush, as I'd hate to see our President casually referred to as a “cokehead” on a regular basis.
Or had they forgotten President Obama's descriptions of using “blow” in his younger days?
Bruce, the GayPatriot, sees Team Obama as following a dangerous path:
Wasn't this the same kind of “aggressive” personal attack that drew wails and beating of chests by the American Left when allegedly-covert CIA agentValerie Plame was “outed” by Richard Armitage?
So every day, Obama looks more and more like the media's characture of President George W. Bush. Ironic, no?
But tome,there seems to be another every-building analogy that fits better: Enemies Lists. Political skullduggery from inside the White House. Tax Cheats evading the law. How very 1972.
O.K., it may not be Change We Can Believe In, but this sort of standard ugly politics is a long way from Watergate. As the week progressed, however, the White House's view of Limbaugh became far less a topic of debate than the Republican Party's view of the broadcasting master.
To begin to understand where he fits in, take a look at this passage from the speech he gave at CPAC:
Conservatism is a universal set of core principles. You don't check principles at the door. This is a battle that we're going to have. And there are egos involved here, too. When the situation like ours exists, there are people who want to lead it. They want to redefine it. Their egos are such that they want to be the next X, whoever it is. So there will be different factions lining up to try to define what conservatism is. And beware of those different factions who seek as part of their attempt to redefine conservativism, as making sure the liberals like us, making sure that the media likes us. They never will, as long as we remain conservatives. They can't possibly like us; they're our enemy. In a political arena of ideas, they're our enemy. They think we need to be defeated.
Well, no regression toward a false mean there. Limbaugh said he didn't “want to name any names” of those who keep “assuming that the way to beat the [Democrats] is with better policy ideas right now.” O.K. so the Opinionator will do it for him: Rod Dreher, Ross Douthat, Reihan Salaam, David Frum, Ramesh Ponnuru, David Brooks and plenty of others. And how did those gentlemen respond?
Dreher, the self-described Crunchy Con, weighed in at BeliefNet to call Limbaugh's speech “political crack” and express his horror that the audience was so energized by it.
One hardly knows what to say to this. Do they really believe politics is dogmatic religion? They must. And if so, they're hopeless. Can you imagine going to such a liberal gathering in 1985, after Fritz Mondale had his head handed to him by Ronald Reagan, and listening to the de facto leader of US liberalism talking this way, saying that, “Liberalism is what it is and it is forever. It's not something you can bend and shape and flake and form”? If you were a conservative, you would have chortled and taken comfort in the evidence that the opposition was going to be spending a lot more time in the woods before the light of reality dawned upon their furrowed faces …
Anybody who challenges Limbavian orthodoxy is, ipso facto, the Enemy. If you suggest reform, even from the Right, you are a useful idiot for the Media, which are the Enemy, and can never be anything but the Enemy. Limbaughism sounds a lot like Leninism.
Salam, writing at Forbes, does think Limbaugh has a major role in the Republican Party, just not the one Rush assumes he has.
What Limbaugh fails to understand is that any successful political movement is built of both true believers and evangelizers. True believers, like Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, fire up the troops. They tell their followers exactly what they want to hear, and they instinctively resist any compromise of their hallowed principles. As a general rule, true believers live and work and worship among other true believers, and they like it that way. To the extent they engage the other side, the engagement takes the form of friendly but chilly mutual incomprehension or, more often, a shouting match. There is something admirable about conviction that runs this deep. But it limits the size of your audience. Every week Rush Limbaugh reaches an audience of over 13 million listeners–a staggering sum by any standard. Yet 13 million listeners plus their spouses, plus the family dog, plus a few dead aunts and uncles thrown in here or there, still doesn't add up to an electoral majority.
To be continued