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."
Limbaugh responded that Steele is "off to a shaky start" and should be rebuilding the party behind the scenes "instead of trying to be some talking-head media star." And guess what: Steele said yesterday that he tried to reach Limbaugh to assure him of his "enormous respect," telling Politico: "I was maybe a little bit inarticulate. . . . There was no attempt on my part to diminish his voice or his leadership."
(Rahm must be chortling. He had told Bob Schieffer about the Rush Effect: "Whenever a Republican criticizes him, they have to run back and apologize to him and say they were misunderstood.")
In a February Gallup poll, 45 percent of respondents said they had an unfavorable view of Limbaugh, to 28 percent with a favorable opinion. The partisan divide was steep, with Republicans favoring Rush 60-23, while Democrats disapproved 63-6.
Limbaugh said the "drive-by media" failed to report the contents of his speech. So here goes:
On race: "It was not us asking whether Barack Obama was authentic. What we were asking is, is he wrong? We concluded yes. We still think so, but we didn't ask if he was authentically black. We didn't say, as some Southern Christian Leadership Conference leader said, Barack is not authentic, he's not got any slave blood, he's really not down for the struggle, but his wife does, so don't expect the race industry to go away. Southern Christian Leadership Conference. You may not even know this, it wasn't reported in the drive-by media -- the racism, the sexism, the bigotry that we are all charged with."
On government power: "There will be more controls over what you can and can't do, how you can and can't do it, what you can and can't drive, what you can and can't say, where you can and can't say it."
On the Constitution: "Barack Obama, the Democrat Party, have one responsibility. And that's to respect the oath they gave to protect, defend and follow the U.S. constitution. They don't have the right to take money that's not theirs and none of it is from back pockets of producers and give it to groups like ACORN which are going advance the Democrat Party. If anybody but government were doing this, it would be a crime."
On Biden: "By the way, did you hear what Joe Biden -- Joe Biden was mystified how Bobby Jindal got a shift off at 7-11 that night to make a speech. Wait a minute. All right. Time out. Time out. Suspend speech. People watching at home -- see, I'm glad this happened. I'm glad this happened. You think I just made a joke, an ethnic joke about Bobby Jindal, don't you? I didn't. I made a joke about the bigotry of the vice president of the United States, Joe Biden. It was Joe Biden while walking through the train station he knows so well because he's such a real guy that he made a comment that you can't go into a 7-11 without seeing some Indian guy behind the counter."
On welfare: "We are told we must only look at their good intentions, their big hearts. The fact that they have destroyed poor families by breaking up those families, by offering welfare checks to women to keep having babies, no more father needed. He's out doing something. The government is the father, they destroy the family, we're not supposed to analyze that. We're not supposed to talk about that. We're supposed to talk about their good intentions."
On the media: "The people that do want control look at us as the enemy. And we're always going to be. Don't ever measure your success by how many drive-by media reports you see that are fair to us. Never going to happen."
Now I can challenge plenty of points. There's no government control over what you can say; in fact, the White House says Obama opposes a resurrection of the Fairness Doctrine. It's not unconstitutional to appropriate money for community organizing groups. Nearly everyone recognizes that Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress reformed welfare.
But Limbaugh's purpose is to provoke, to push the proverbial envelope. And on that score, he succeeded. Liberals are indeed agitated, starting with Thomas Schaller in Salon:
"Strip away the platitudes and cheap applause lines about freedom, self-reliance and the virtues of capitalism, and you're left with the subject that really interests Rush Limbaugh: himself. The conservative talker with the self-professed 'talent on loan from God' spoke incessantly in the first person: there were more 'I's' in his CPAC address than in an Idaho potato field. One clear message emerged from the speech: Le mouvement conservative, c'est moi. And it's a message that makes some of the nominal leaders of the Republican Party uncomfortable . . .
"Limbaugh has become more important simply by surviving. When the Democrats last controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress, during Bill Clinton's first two years in office, there were other conservative stars competing for the limelight, and more waiting in the wings. Newt Gingrich was the speaker of the House. George Bush had just been elected governor of Texas. This year at CPAC, despite appearances by the likes of Ward Connerly, Ann Coulter, Phyllis Schlafly and Karl Rove, Limbaugh was clearly the superstar draw. As the movement searches for a front-and-center spokesman to provide inspiration and direction, Limbaugh's refusal to tilt toward the center may place him out front in a Republican Party already suffering from a disappearing moderate wing."
At HuffPost, Tom Watson oozes contempt:
"Looking for all the world like the sweating floor manager on the late afternoon shift at Larry Flynt's Hustler Club in an unbuttoned shiny black shirt and undersized sport coat, Rush Limbaugh leaned his meaty hands on the lectern at the CPAC conference and slipped a greasy dollar bill into the G-string of the writhing conservative dead-enders packed into the garishly lit Omni Shoreham in Washington DC. . . .
"If there's any doubt that the GOP's own Paulie Walnuts is now firmly in command of the Party of Lincoln, the 'breaking news' style coverage of Limbaugh's bellow-cose rant dispelled the notion. CNN, for one, went wide - with the kind of uninterrupted live footage usually reserved for presidents and popes, followed by a panel of analysts to weigh and consider the import of the speech to this republic of ours."
Liberal blogger Taylor Marsh is offended:
"One moment was utterly stunning. It was when Rush and the entire CPAC audience took the time and effort to malign John Kerry's service to this country, even laughing at the mention of Vietnam. Rush's disrespect for the military dripped off the very mention of Kerry's name. It was disgraceful. For a crew who professes to respect the military, at every turn Republicans reveal their disdain for our troops, especially if they're Democrats. It's the same with Republican military policy, which has strung our forces out and depleted our reserves.
"But I'm really at a loss of what to make of Rush's performance on the whole. It was a rambling, sometimes incoherent, self-indulgent mess. There was something pathetically insecure about the lack of structure to the speech, but also Rush's herky jerky, sweat wiping, water drinking, fist bumping, awkward pauses, note looking, never ending regurgitation of what Rush thought everyone had to hear. Because he was addressing the nation, you know, which he repeated so many times he even got sick of it.
"Still, make no mistake about it. Being on the outs fires people up and the CPAC crowd, most of them college students, were definitely fired up."
A very different take, obviously, on the right, as we see from John Hawkins at Pajamas Media:
"The Democrats have been working overtime lately on a mission to publicly demonize Rush Limbaugh.
"They're even running anti-Rush commercials, which admittedly could endanger the Senate seat he holds in Florida (oh wait, he's not a senator). Come to think of it, he's not a congressman or governor either. He's a talk radio host who, despite the protestations of the Democrats to the contrary, quite regrettably has far less influence on the Republican Party than, say, MoveOn or the DailyKos appear to have on the Democratic Party. . . . All in all, Rush delivered a magnificent speech at CPAC."
But Hawkins does have his criticisms: "We may be able to win future battles running on Reagan's ideas, but we won't win the long-term war for the future of our country by perpetually running on a nearly 30-year-old political agenda."
Republican strategist Brad Blakeman says the White House overreached:
"First and foremost for folks to understand, even Rahm Emanuel, is that Rush is an Entertainer and 'philosophizer' in Bush speak. For a Chief of Staff to rail on Rush on [Face the Nation] was stupidity at its highest. As much as the Democrats want to believe that Rush is the 'leader' of Republicans and conservatives, it is simply not true."
At Hot Air, Allahpundit posts a positive reaction:
"For more than a generation, the traditional media has tried to build a wall around public sentiment to protect the Democratic Party from articulate critics. Recent election cycles and the emergence of the Internet have only exacerbated the situation. In the past year, media bias has gotten out of hand.
"But it has not been able to stop that mountain we call Rush. He is much more than an entertainer or a person who can 'motivate the base' - as the media repeats like cheap talking points. He has the uncanny ability to expose the intricate web of bias to those who do not yet know that they should doubt the media's sincerity."
The LAT, feeling left out of the Twitter craze, finds Demi Moore and other tweeting Hollywood celebs.
Fortune's most admired publishing company: Washington Post. I'm just sayin'. Not that it boosts the stock one cent.
Blago gets a six-figure book deal: "Blagojevich will expose the 'dark side of politics' that he witnessed as a former congressman and governor."
No wonder he went on all those talk shows.
Finally, Meghan McCain says the campaign has screwed up her dating life, no matter which candidate her potential suitors supported.