Minority Leader Limbaugh

By David Plouffe
Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The 2008 election sent many messages. At the top: Americans wanted to turn the page on the politics of division and partisan pettiness, and they wanted a government -- and country -- that would put the middle class first.

Watching the Republicans operate this past month, it would appear that they missed that unmistakable signal.

Instead, Rush Limbaugh has become their leader.

Limbaugh, of course, told his radio listeners that he's rooting for President Obama to fail -- and hoping the president's ideas for bolstering our economy fail with him. For many Americans, hungry for leadership and cooperation, this sounded like fingernails on a chalkboard. When Limbaugh reiterated the sentiment this weekend, hundreds of Republican conservatives cheered him on. But instead of rebuking the radio personality or charting their own course, Republican leaders in Washington are paralyzed with fear of crossing their leader. Less than 24 hours after committing the unforgivable sin of criticizing Limbaugh, RNC Chairman Michael Steele felt compelled to publicly apologize. He was not the first and will certainly not be the last.

Limbaugh's voice could be heard in the words of new Republican quarterback Eric Cantor, who says the GOP's strategy will be to "Just Say No" -- not for substantive or philosophical reasons but to advance Limbaugh's strategy for failure. Independent voters, those who find the ways of Washington particularly toxic, could be forgiven for wondering whether the Republican minority has any clue what is happening in our country.

Last week's Post-ABC News poll shows that voters trust President Obama on the economy by a remarkable 35 percentage points more than they trust Republicans in Congress -- the biggest advantage for a president on this question since George H.W. Bush basked in public approval of his handling of the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

The source of Obama's advantage is critical: independent voters, who give the president high marks on his handling of the economy and his job overall.

Obama won these voters, who famously recoil from what they see as overly partisan and shortsighted politics, by eight points in 2008 -- a dramatic improvement for the Democrats from 2004, when George Bush and John Kerry tied.

There are other groups of voters worth watching. Among those with a history of voting in presidential elections, Obama and Sen. John McCain essentially ran even. Obama won first-time voters by a convincing 39 points -- owing largely to a combination of younger voters, Hispanic voters and disaffected voters.

The sentiment seems alive and well today. Seventy-three percent of all voters, The Post found, believe that the president is trying to cooperate with Republicans. Only 36 percent believe the same to be true of the GOP.

It would surprise no one to learn where new voters and independents came down on that question.

Thus far, Republican leaders have let their strategy be guided by their most conservative base, capturing perhaps a third of the nation's voters. For Republican candidates seeking the support of right-wing activists in Iowa, who will exercise outsize influence in the presidential selection process in four years, that strategy -- while not entirely defensible in the midst of an economic crisis -- is understandable.

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