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Obama vs. Limbaugh Revisited

A battle is raging within the Republican Party over its future direction and what it should stand far. This is not uncommon for parties after they lose an election, especially as decisively as the GOP did in 2006 and 2008. Being locked out of power in the House, the Senate, and the White House, Republicans have little more than the threat of a filibuster when it comes to actual legislative control. This is a sharp contrast from the heyday of the GOP as recently as the 2004 election. Since then, the GOP has been in a tailspin.

Shortly before President Obama's inauguration, I argued that there were three political figures who posed very real problems to the GOP: Ronald Reagan (because voters under 35 barely remember him, if they even remember him at all), Barack Obama (because he is creating a new generation of loyal Democratic voters), and Sarah Palin (because she caters to a wing of the Republican Party that makes it very difficult for the party to expand its base).

These arguments still hold true now, but they have become compounded by the fact that there is a leadership vacuum in the GOP and nobody seems sure of who should fill it. There is no clear person Republicans can point to and immediately identify as their party's leader.

John McCain? He's yesterday's news, and conservatives were never really on board with his candidacy anyway. John Boehner? Who's that? Mitch McConnell? Whatever. Eric Cantor? Maybe in a few years. Michael Steele? He may be the party chair, but is he really the one calling the shots?

Further complicating matters, the party risks becoming a party of opposition rather than a party of ideas in the minds of the voters. For Republicans, the worst part of all of this is that given the new president and the extraordinary circumstances facing this nation in terms of the economy and foreign policy, the public is looking intently at their leaders in Washington for guidance. What are Republicans doing to take advantage of this opportunity?

If they're not criticizing the new president's policies and pushing for more tax cuts, they're apologizing to conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh who has emerged as the most visible face of the GOP. Democratic strategists are now looking at Limbaugh with glee.

Back in January when Limbaugh said he "hoped Obama failed" and the Obama administration responded to these remarks, I argued that it was a crafty way of drawing Republicans into a fight they could not win:

"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.

[T]his 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?

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 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."
Obama wins because he gets to ignore Limbaugh and look reasonable and mature by comparison. (Limbaugh most recently challenged Obama to appear on his radio show for a debate. A debate?! With the President of the United States?! On a radio show?! With a non-politician?!) Democrats win because they can turn Limbaugh into a political albatross for congressional Republicans by forcing them to repudiate him or embrace him. And Limbaugh wins because he will undoubtedly garner higher ratings and influence in conservative circles.

Republicans in general, however, are the big losers here. They tried very hard to play the "guilt by association" card against Barack Obama and congressional Democrats during the last campaign, especially when it came to William Ayers and Jeremiah Wright. Now the same tactic is being used on them with an even greater effect.

It is important to note that most Republicans who are still in Congress (in other words, they survived the 2006 and 2008 landslides) hail from districts or states that are solidly Republican. They don't have to worry about appealing beyond this conservative Republican base. However, that base is no longer large enough for the party to remain competitive. It is impossible for Republicans to embrace Rush Limbaugh and grow their base at the same time.

Obama himself is wisely staying away from talking about Limbaugh now. However, by baiting Limbaugh early on, he set a trap for Republicans. And by ignoring Limbaugh now, Obama can continue to take the high road and look presidential while his Democratic allies prolong the fight and turn moderates and independents away from the Republican Party. Meanwhile, Limbaugh continues to flail away as congressional Republicans continue to trip over themselves to avoid offending him. Now the Republican Party runs the risk of being known as the party of "no" and the party of "Rush," thus working to the Democrats' advantage.

That might not be "change" to Obama's critics, but it is shrewd politics.

13 comment(s):

King Politics said...

I like the poll question, but I wish you had an option for "Other." To me, it's interest groups, and I highly recommend Mancur Olson's, "The Rise and Decline of Nations" as a primer.

King Politics said...

As relevant as Limbaugh is, (How can he not be? 20 million folks a week listen to him), he's not as relevant as he used to be. The conservative base he preaches to is contracting, not expanding.

Anonymous said...

Limbaugh also a demographic deficit when it comes to women: Limbaugh To Convene A ‘Female Summit’ To Figure Out Why Women Hate Him: http://thinkprogress.org/2009/02/25/limbaugh-women/

DB said...

The GOP is in a tough position. They need to "grow" their base, but following Limbaugh and his exclusionary approach to conservative politics only hurts the movement. How can you increase your group membership by putting all your positions into a tiny box with no room for slightly different opinions? It isn't possible. Limbaugh, Hannity and the rest of them are advocating a hard-right position which only increases the chances that people will not follow. The further extreme (right or left) a movement goes, the smaller it becomes.

S.W. Anderson said...

AP, I think you're right about the efficacy of the Democratic strategy linking the GOP with Rush Limbaugh as closely as possible in the public mind, making him an albatross.

However, you keep mentioning "a wing of the Republican Party," referring to the radical right. The party really only has one wing. It consists of fundamentalist Christians, White, largely older southerners, free-market religionists and big-money groups and individuals.

What distinguishes all those people is absolutist attitudes about politics, government, faith, society, the economy, foreign policy and so on.

The Bush administration came by its "you're either with us or you're against America (or against the troops)" attack habit honestly. It reflects the understanding and mindset of Bush's base and the radical-right Republican base.

Think the government is the only tool in the shed big enough and with enough resources to tackle the economic mess Bush and his favored people left behind? You just want socialism. That makes you un-American.

Think the multifaceted, exquisitely expensive dilemma posed by our problematic health care system will only be solved using government as the organizing, reforming force? Again, you just want to go socialist and become like all those thoroughly miserable Europeans — dolts supposedly so dense they don't realize they're miserable, overtaxed drones controlled by their socialist governments.

Think women should have the right to decide whether to carry a pregnancy to term, whether or not you personally condone their reasons for deciding one way or the other? Why, you must be a God-hating heathen.

On and on it goes. If you consider yourself a Republican, you either march in lockstep or you're marginalized and at most barely tolerated. Chuck Hagel didn't give up the idea of running for president and leave the Senate because he was having such a good time. He was entirely too moderate.

And now, you've got Michael Steele threatening the last remnants of Northeastern relatively moderate Republican Sens. Collins, Snowe and Specter with primary challenges for not voting against the Democrats' stimulus bill. Woe be unto them.

I suspect you could get all the truly moderate Republicans involved in national politics together for coffee in one small Starbuck's and have room left over for the mid-morning rush.

If Republicans too moderate for the leaders, movers and shakers, elected officials and major money backers of their party want to get somewhere, they would stand a better chance by forming a new party of their own. The GOP isn't a big-tent party because, deep down, it doesn't want to be one.

S.W. Anderson said...

Anonymous, I heard on MSNBC yesterday that people under 40 make up only 11 percent of Limbaugh's audience. He's an anachronism now, an '80's success whose time has come and gone.

In fact, Rush Limbaugh is as appropriate for this time and situation as an eight-track tape player loaded with disco-dancing tunes, and less desirable than a Plymouth K-car with 180,000 miles on it.

Thomas said...

Frankly I am surprised by how much we still talk about Republicans. They don't really matter much these days, I think. What would be best for them would be for them to disappear for a period of time and let people forget about how bad they did this decade. Republicans don't have enough power or relevant ideas to erase what happened under President Bush. Why try that route?

Thomas said...

Obviously the Democrats are worried that the truly offensive Republicans have been washed away - Santorum, DeLay, Strom Thurmond, Trent Lott, Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzales, Cheney and Bush. They need a Republican boogie man where one does not really exist anymore. Rush is that guy. The thing is Rush is old news like some of the comments here already mentioned. People know who he is and they know how much influence he has over policy - none.

All this makes me wonder about efforts to kill Bobby Jindal and his national ambitions now. One speech does not define a person. (Even Obama has given some bad speeches.) A lot of the criticism against Jindal after his speech seemed a tad uncomfortable to me.

Anthony, do you think people think it is easier to criticize an Indian as a dumb hick than an African American man?

S.W. Anderson said...

Thomas wrote: "Obviously the Democrats are worried that the truly offensive Republicans have been washed away . . ."

I don't think so. This past week Karl Rove was a guest on ABC's This Week. Chris Matthews had Trent Lott as a guest Monday, then Tom DeLay on Tuesday. Today (Friday) it comes out that Newt Gingrich is interested in running for president in 2012. (My post on that is here.)

Thomas said...

But what influence do this guys have over policy, S.W.? Sure, these guys will always have somewhat of a future giving speeches or lobbying or being interviewed on television. (Maybe except for DeLay. Hello, big house, Tom.) But these guys cannot be blamed for whatever policy decisions are made from here on out.

S.W. Anderson said...

Thomas, you're right about them being on the outside when it comes to policy making. I didn't realize that's what you meant by "washed away."

Even so, they are opinion makers with national name recognition. With disgusting regularity they get to hold forth on national TV and radio, with help from hosts who rarely challenge their spin, lies, exaggerations and ideological nonsense. Rather, hosts present these ultra partisan hacks as experts on government, law, society and public policy, and the hosts treat them like visitng royalty.

This adds up to people like Gingrich, Rove and the others still being in the game, with potential for affecting the outcome.

BTW, every time Chris Matthews has DeLay on his show, Matthews positively fawns over the creep. Maybe something about rubbing elbows with a sex-slave operation's go-to guy in Washington turns Matthews on.

Anonymous said...


The Emasculation of Michael Steele

Anonymous said...

It annoys me when people who haven't picked up a poli sci book in the last 5 to 35 years use and misuse the words "socialist and socialism" like racial slurs - What they fail to acknowledge, including some commentators on this blog, it that we already have socialist elements in our government (Social Security, medicare, entitlement programs, etc.) without having a socialist system i.e., democracy is still in tact - so, don't bitch about socialism unless 1) you can distinguish between uniform and mixed forms of government and 2) you want to do away with programs like Social Security 3) screwing the economic system and the country for your own self interest in un-American, not talking about socialism

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