Rush, Back in the Saddle

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 3, 2009; 9:35 AM

The White House has decided to run against Rush Limbaugh.

For weeks now, El Rushbo has been riding a publicity wave, fueled by an unerring sense of showmanship and his bald-faced declaration that he wants President Obama to fail. The media, finding Limbaugh far more fascinating than Mitch McConnell or John Boehner, have staged endless debates over whether the radio talk show host is the new leader of the Republican Party.

The conventional strategy in such cases is for the administration in power to avoid talking about a mere radio critic. That would elevate him to the level of the president.

Which, it turns out, is exactly what the Obama team wants.

On Sunday's "Face the Nation," Rahm Emanuel was more than happy to build up Rush: "He is the voice and the intellectual force and energy behind the Republican Party, and he has been up front about what he views, and hasn't stepped back from that, which is he hopes for failure. He said it, and I compliment him on his honesty. But that's their philosophy that's enunciated by Rush Limbaugh and I think that's the wrong philosophy for America."

Rahm doesn't make such comments by accident. Obama had mentioned Limbaugh once before, to a group of GOP congressmen, but now the White House has made the calculation that it wants Rush to be the face of the opposition party. That, in effect, the president's operation would rather campaign against him than the Republican congressional leaders. That Rush's rhetoric presents them with a big fat target.

Limbaugh fired back on his show yesterday, saying the White House was trying to "malign me, take me out of context" and "attach it to the Republican Party in general, because President Obama wants no debate." He said this was "a game of manipulation emanating from the Oval Office," and that he wants Obama's socialist policies to fail, not for the economy and stock market to tank and unemployment to remain high.

But White House officials contend that Limbaugh gets more airtime than any other Republican and that they need to respond to his call for the president's failure -- which happens to provide them with a juicy target.

Limbaugh, who spoke to the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday -- an hourlong address carried live by Fox and CNN -- is loving it. He comes right out and admits it: He relishes the opportunity to tweak liberals. He enjoys getting under their skin. He benefits from the outraged reaction. Limbaugh is a businessman promoting his brand, which he has done successfully for two decades.

In 1992, Bush 41 had Rush over to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom. In 1995, Rush was named an honorary member of the Newt Gingrich class that had just taken over the House. In January, Bush 43 had him over for lunch and Ed Gillespie brought out a birthday cake.

It's not that Limbaugh always marches in lockstep with the GOP. He hammered John McCain for not being a true conservative. But he is clearly energized by the Obama presidency.

Not all GOPers are embracing Rush. Republican National Chairman Michael Steele called Limbaugh "an entertainer" in an interview with CNN's D.L. Hughley, adding: "Yes, he's incendiary. Yes, it's ugly."

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