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On Obama vs. Limbaugh

Conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh set off a firestorm of controversy earlier this month when he said that he "hopes Obama fails" because a successful Obama presidency and a conservative agenda cannot coexist. This comment received a lot of attention in the blogosphere which is now having renewed debates about patriotism and partisanship (see here, here, and here).

In response, President Obama caught the world of conservative talk radio by surprise when he warned that "you can't just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done." Not wanting to let this charge go unanswered, Limbaugh fired back by saying Obama was "frightened" of him. He also chastised the congressional Republican leadership for not being tough enough on the new president.

A conventional interpretation of Obama's remarks is that Obama believes that while Limbaugh's combativeness and unwillingness to compromise may be sweet music to hardcore conservatives, his approach to politics is ultimately problematic because it turns so many voters off and results in political stalemates and animosity. However, the interpretation of Obama's words is far less important than the reason why he even bothered to get involved in this discussion in the first place.

At first glance, it appears that Obama made a mistake by criticizing Limbaugh. An old saying on the campaign trail is that if you're going to shoot, you never aim down. Obama is the President of the United States. As the new leader of the free world, he has more power, more importance, more influence, and more respect than anyone else in the country. Rush Limbaugh may have an audience of 20 million listeners, but Barack Obama received almost 70 million votes. Therefore, one could argue that Obama is diminishing his stature by engaging Limbaugh. Elevated by Obama, Limbaugh could then argue to his listeners that he has gotten under Obama's skin. This translates into better ratings for Limbaugh and greater approval from his listeners who love the red meat.

However, after running a successful two-year long presidential campaign characterized by strict message discipline, it is possible that Obama was thinking beyond Limbaugh.

There are three main segments of Republican voters:

1. Moderate Republicans. These Republicans tend to be conservative on fiscal issues, but more moderate on social issues. They often live in the suburbs and are well off financially. These kinds of Republicans kept Midwestern and Northeastern states like Michigan, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania competitive. Of all Republicans, these types were probably the most likely to vote for Barack Obama last November or may tepidly identify themselves as Blue Dog Democrats now. Icons of this wing of the party include Colin Powell, Lincoln Chafee, Mitt Romney, Olympia Snowe, and Bob Ehrlich.

2. Small government conservatives. These Republicans simply want to be left alone. They don't want the government to do anything with their land, their guns, or their money. They are conservative on social issues as well, but think these issues are best resolved at the state level. These Republicans were probably pulling their hair out when they were in the majority during the first 6 years of Bush's presidency because they saw the rest of their party running off the rails in terms of government spending and government growth. Many of them live in the libertarian West. Icons of this wing of the GOP include Mike Pence, John Shadegg, John McCain, Lisa Murkowski, Eric Cantor, and John Barrasso.

3. Conservative populists. Also known as the Republican base, these Republicans are conservative on fiscal issues and conservative on social issues, but they seek government intervention when it comes to implementing their social policies (such as a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage). Concentrated in the South and rural Midwest, this wing of the party was probably more likely to subscribe to the rumors about Obama's religion and his ties to "terrorists." These hard right Republicans did not like John McCain, but they absolutely loved Sarah Palin. In addition to Palin, other icons of this wing of the party include Saxby Chambliss, Tom Tancredo, Tony Perkins, James Inhofe, and Sean Hannity.

This third wing of the GOP constitutes Rush Limbaugh's core audience. But it is also this wing of the party that is hurting the Republican Party's ability to keep the first wing of the party in line and bring independents and conservative Democrats into its ranks. There is a complete leadership vacuum in the GOP right now. John McCain lost the election and is now just another senator. The RNC is still looking for a chairman. Most voters don't know who Mitch McConnell and John Boehner are (they are the majority leaders of the Senate and House, respectively). And Sarah Palin clearly split the party. So perhaps Rush Limbaugh is filling this leadership void. Even though he holds no office, he does wield tremendous influence and is intensely popular with the base.

By elevating Limbaugh, Obama is also shining a spotlight on the wing of the party Limbaugh represents. This puts the cool and bipartisan Obama against the fiery and antagonistic Limbaugh. Because voters responded well to Obama's message of "change" and bipartisanship, they will probably think that Obama looks much more mature and much more politically appealing than Limbaugh. Of course, Limbaugh is not running for office.

However, this presents a dilemma for Republican politicians. Do they distance themselves from Limbaugh because his rhetoric is over the top? Or do they embrace Limbaugh and risk limiting their appeal beyond the conservative populist base? Congressman Phil Gingrey of Georgia initially came out against Limbaugh, but later called Limbaugh during his show and apologized for "putting his foot in his mouth." He also said he greatly respected "conservative icons" like Limbaugh who were helping to strengthen the base.

A point to remember is that in the current House of Representatives, most Republicans who survived the 2006 and 2008 elections represent solidly conservative districts. They don't have to worry about pleasing Democrats, liberals, and moderates. Perhaps Congressman Gingrey forgot that he represents a conservative district in Georgia. But what about other Republicans, especially those in the first two groups I mentioned above? How will they respond if they are called upon to denounce Limbaugh's remarks?

Obama is far more popular among far more people than Limbaugh is, and it appears that Obama may have put the Republican Party in a bit of a box by giving the least attractive wing of the party (politically speaking) a larger stage. For Republicans seeking to grow the party by appealing to a broader swath of the electorate, having Rush Limbaugh wish out loud that the new president fails and hearing him claim that "we have to bend over and grab our ankles because his father was Black" most certainly does not play well beyond his politically weakened audience.

For Republicans harboring broader political ambitions, Rush Limbaugh may help them in the primaries, but send them to their doom in a general election. President Obama may have outfoxed Republicans by stoking the fire and letting Limbaugh win the battle at the expense of losing the larger war.

16 comment(s):

Khaki Elephant said...

I think you're giving Obama far too much credit for this one. Given his recent knee-jerk responses to tough questions and criticism I can't help but think that his Limbaugh comment was more of the same rather than a clever attempt to trigger a GOP implosion.

Like many Republicans, I'm not a Limbaugh fan, but I do believe that the left is taking a huge risk in educating the public with their attacks on Limbaugh. When I first heard that Limbaugh had said he hoped Obama failed I thought, "It figures" and passed it off as Limbaugh insanity. But as the left pressed I began to hear the other side of the story. Limbaugh hadn't actually wanted Obama to fail, but wanted socialist policies and Obama's "plan for big government" to fail. So now the message that Republicans lacked the ability to push during the campaign (due in no small part to being massively outspent) is back on the table. American's are once again hearing that Obama is a socialist. And now that he is pushing through what will end up being a trillion dollar stimulus package, the accusation could gain teeth . . . especially should debt spin further out of control

DB said...

Limbaugh made the statement that he hopes Obama fails. Regardless of his meaning, that is how it sounds. Republicans take a step back when they have to defend against this, especially against their own when Limbaugh starts calling out the GOP leadership. The implication causes harm whether or not the defense is good. Coupled with the RNC chair drama, I am not sure how this is helping the GOP image.

Anonymous said...

Anthony, your commentary strikes me as nothing more than an elevated "He said, she said". Personally, I really don't care what Obama said in response to Limbaugh, or what their motives were.

You're obviously an intelligent guy. May I suggest that instead of writing up a psychoanalysis of a couple of statements that will be forgotten in 6 months, you give an analysis of something more practical - say, like, the stimulus package!

How do you differentiate between a good cause and something that actually stimulates the economy? I'm no economist, but it seems like many of the "good causes" (i.e. Medicaid for unemployed workers) that will be funded by this package are NOT going to stimulate our economy.

I have heard that Japan has enacted similar stimulus packages and has failed over and over again. How are we any different?

I would like to know why I should not feel like Washington is COMPLETELY out of control with this $819 billion dollar package thing. I think many Americans are asking the same question.

You seem to be pro-Obama and the Democratic party. What's your take on it?

D. (Dianna)

DB said...

Dianna, what you are missing here is the deeper story in the "science" of politics. I am sure Anthony will post on the stimulus, but you can probably find commentary elsewhere if you need it. This post is simply a study on the communication and rhetoric that goes on behind the scenes of many policy debates. We just happen to hear about this one. To those who are interested in the inner workings of politics on a national level, studying this debate is rather important. This issue tells the larger story about why the stimulus bill is so partisan. Understanding the "why" is just as important as the "what". Most of Anthony's post are of this nature.

S.W. Anderson said...

AP, it seems to me your interesting post hinges on one word, "engaging."

". . . one could argue that Obama is diminishing his stature by engaging Limbaugh."

If one accepts that making a single, straightforward public statement equates with entering into some sort of running debate, your case holds up very well. I'm having a hard time accepting that because Obama hasn't continued sparring with Limbaugh or his dittoheads.

I think Obama used Limbaugh as shorthand for the microphone-armed bully and his following, for the purpose of putting some Republican legislators on notice they're rapidly forfeiting any benefit they might gain from a good-faith stab at bipartisanship.

That revealed Obama as being uncharacteristically behind the political power curve. Clearly, Republican legislators have already made a calculation they have everything to gain and nothing to lose by opposing Obama and congressional Democrats at every opportunity.

Republicans' idea of post partisanship remains the same as it was under Nixon, the same as it was in 2001: Republicans gain control of the federal government and rule so completely and ruthlessly that the Democratic opposition is rendered inert.

Last but not least, Republicans will write off their Southern and Lower Midwest base when they conclude that doing so will bring them complete power and keep that power in their hands indefinitely. IOW, in some future liftetime, maybe.

Political Realm said...

Regardless of Obama's intentions or the impact such a confrontation may have on him, Rush Limbaugh as the face of the Republican Party is not a good thing for them. He may drive up his own ratings, but I have a hard time imagining many independent or moderate voter buying into his arguments. Republicans seem to be acting like its still 1994 or 2004, when the environment couldn't be more different today. That type of message may resonate at some point again, but it sure doesn't right now.

Khaki Elephant said...

a good-faith stab at bipartisanship

From Obama? Yes, thus far he's been about as willing to reach across the aisle as he was in Illinois . . . which is to say, not at all. As he himself told a critic of his stimulus plan, "I Won." so I suppose he figures there is no reason for him to reach out.

Wait, you may have been kidding.

Unless you're really referring to Obama's possible appointment of a Sen. Judd Gregg as Sec. of Commerse which, given Obama's obvious nobility, is probably a "bipartisan choice" and has nothing to do with the fact that the Gov. of New Hampshire is a Democrat who would undoubtedly replace Gregg with a Dem -- one step closer to that super majority.

Or perhaps it was a stab at bipartisanship the way Pelosi barred Republicans from participating in authoring the stimulus bill.

However, I must admit that the bill did lead to some bipartisanship. No Republicans joined Obama, but 11 Democrats crossed the aisle to side with the GOP against a stimulus package aimed at "immediately kick starting the economy" by backloading the stimulus stipends to arrive in 3 or 4 years.

DB said...

Well, GOP Congressmen might not have supported the bill, but it looks like GOP Governors are supporting it.

S.W. Anderson said...

Khaki, House Republicans got their chance to offer amendments on the stimulus bill, which they did. That those amendments didn't pass is a function of House Republicans lacking the votes to get them passed. As they pointed out to Democrats for a dozen years, that's just a fact of political life; get over it.

However, after days of Republicans demagoging and whining about the family planning portion of the bill, Obama asked House Dems to take that out and save it for later, as a separate measure, which they did. That was an effort to accommodate opposition complaints unlike anything I ever saw from Bush and DeLay.

King Politics said...

I have one quibble with your math. Obama received more votes than anyone, ever in American history. He has no choice but to aim low when he engages his critics, whether it's Limbaugh, Mitch McConnell, or John Boehner.

Thomas said...

I think what Obama is trying to do is to find the new unflattering face of the Republican Party. All the usual suspects are gone: Tom DeLay, Rick Santorum, Jerry Falwell, Jack Abramoff, Dick Cheney, and George W. Bush. I bet the average person on the street can't name a Republican other than McCain or Palin.

You can argue that Democrats have been too successful the last few years. The inevitable "Republicans are bad" theory that Democrats like to push just will not work anymore. They can try to blame Palin for stuff but she is up in Alaska. Nobody knows who Mitch McConnell or John Boehner are. Like Bill Clinton made Newt Gingrich the face of Republican cruelness, so Obama will do that with Limbaugh. Limbaugh is not an elected official but he is the best Obama has.

Thomas said...

Can I quibble with your numbers a little bit, King Politics? Sure, Obama got more votes than anyone in American history. That just says to me that we have a growing population. The record he broke was George W. Bush's record from four years ago.

Obama's margin of victory does not even come close to Johnson's in 1964 or Nixon's in 1972 or Reagan's in 1984. I may be wrong here but each of those three won like 44 states or more and 58% of the vote or more.

Anthony Palmer said...

Wow, lots of good comments here.

I personally think Limbaugh serves as a strawman Republican for Obama to contrast himself with. To the majority of the political center, I'd imagine that Obama looks more reasonable than Limbaugh does. As for Limbaugh, bashing Obama is good for ratings. So perhaps they both need each other?

As for political margins of victory, I think the only way any candidate of any party could amass victories like LBJ in '64 or Reagan in '84 would be if the rival party nominated a fatally flawed candidate, such as a closet racist or a candidate caught in a major scandal while on the campaign trail. Even with that, some states will probably NEVER vote for a Democrat (e.g., Oklahoma, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah), and some states will probably NEVER vote for a Republican (Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Hawaii). I think we're a lot more polarized now than we were during the days of Goldwater, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, and even Clinton.

Again, I really appreciate all the comments you leave on this blog. Classes are taking a lot of my time this semester, so I don't have the time to respond to each comment individually like I used to. But I do read every comment, and I appreciate them all. Thank you.

lfc said...

gimme a break. why does obama care what a right-winged talk show host is saying about his presidency? obama has too much to do than to bother himself with the extreme right.
i think it made obama look weak and insecure when he began addressing rush and those who support him.
besides - GOD FORBID someone wishes some of obama's policies don't make it through. how dare we question The Messiah's agenda.

and you didn't mention ron paul as a figurehead for #2. i heart him. :)

Political Realm said...

Off topic, but I love the Obama messianic cult that lives inside the heads of some people.

Did anyone in these comments say it was wrong to question the "messiah"?

DB said...

PR - it's a bit ironic coming from the party of Reagan, isn't it?

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