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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.

But any party that hopes to actually govern must appeal to moderates. Today, "moderate" is not an adjective that many would associate with the GOP minority in Congress. And a strategy designed chiefly to satisfy the 33 percent of voters who approved of George Bush's performance last fall -- while turning off first-time and swing voters -- hardly seems like the best way out of the political wilderness.

But Republicans aren't simply guilty of knee-jerk reactions in opposing efforts to reach common ground. They also thumb their noses at the middle class, those who are struggling mightily in these rocky economic times. One after the other, congressional Republicans declared before TV cameras that the president's economic recovery plan won't work -- that it would rocket the country toward socialism and would only make things worse.

The truth? Obama's recovery package contains the biggest middle-class tax cut in history. It will create or save at least 3 million jobs. In every community, district and state, its impact will soon be felt. Obama has made clear that this measure, while crucial, won't solve all our economic problems overnight. But no matter what the eventual impact, congressional Republicans have staked out their position: steadfastly opposing something most Americans see as reducing middle-class taxes and creating jobs when the country needs those outcomes most.

There is still time for Washington Republicans to join some of their colleagues outside the Beltway and become partners in progress. As Americans, we should all hope that happens.

But if the GOP sticks with its strategy of failure as the only option, further eroding its brand with the people who decide elections, we may find out what it means for a political party to hit rock bottom.

The writer is senior adviser at AKPD Message and Media, a political consulting firm. He served as campaign manager for Obama for America and Obama-Biden 2008.

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