GOP Seeks Balance With Conservative Icon Limbaugh

Talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, shown with former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld at the White House in January, has created a quandary for the GOP.
Talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, shown with former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld at the White House in January, has created a quandary for the GOP. (By J. Scott Applewhite -- Associated Press)
By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 4, 2009

For a man who expresses no desire to lead the Republican Party, Rush Limbaugh has a knack for creating problems for those who do.

Still smarting from consecutive electoral drubbings, Republicans now find themselves caught in a crossfire between Democrats pressuring them to denounce the conservative talk radio host's bombastic criticism of a popular new president and his own denunciations of their party as an embarrassment.

The ongoing controversy over Limbaugh's statement in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday that he wants "Barack Obama to fail" and the aggressive Democratic pushback it drew has emerged as the latest challenge for a party struggling to find its voice and lacking an obvious national leader.

Few Republicans are eager to alienate Limbaugh's millions of avid listeners. But as party officials work to expand their shrinking coalition, they are also vexed about how to contend with his more pointed commentaries on hot-button issues and a president whom most in the party have been reluctant to criticize.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele apologized to Limbaugh on Monday after referring to his show as "incendiary" and "ugly" over the weekend -- statements that led Limbaugh to say the new chairman was "off to a shaky start." Steele said yesterday that he and congressional leaders will be shaping the party's strategy. But he also praised Limbaugh as a "strong conservative voice," adding, "What ticks the left off is he is effective."

Steele's gyrations reflected the delicate balance Republicans are attempting to find with Limbaugh. Party strategists say his listeners include a huge swath of the activist base, but some of his rhetoric leaves GOP elected officials forced either to defend views they may not support or to disagree with a popular conservative icon.

"The influence Rush has is 20 million listeners," said Ron Bonjean, who was spokesman for former House speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), referring to what Limbaugh says is his weekly audience. "But to get back to the majority, we need to also connect to independents who may not be listeners of his show." Democrats continued to mock Steele for buckling to Limbaugh yesterday, maintained their insistence that Limbaugh is the GOP's de facto leader, and said they planned no letup in their attacks. The White House and the Democratic National Committee have been coordinating their response, and liberal interest groups are planning to expand their television ads highlighting Limbaugh's comments in the days ahead.

"Rush is the bloated face and drug-addled voice of the Republican Party," said Paul Begala, a longtime Democratic strategist who rose to prominence during Bill Clinton's presidency. "Along with lots of others, I intend to continue to turn up the heat until every alleged Republican either endorses or renounces Rush's statement that he hopes our president fails."

Limbaugh, meanwhile, brushes aside the idea that he is the chief spokesman for the GOP. "I'm not in charge of the Republican Party, and I don't want to be," he said on his show Monday.

Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for House Minority Whip Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), said Democrats should focus less on attacking Limbaugh and more on working with congressional Republicans.

"If Robert Gibbs is worried about the policies Rush Limbaugh is talking about on his show, he should call into the show. I'm sure Rush would welcome it," Dayspring said, referring to criticism from President Obama's press secretary.

Several aides to congressional Republicans declined to comment yesterday about Limbaugh's role in the GOP, saying they did not want to play into the Democratic strategy of pitting Limbaugh against some party leaders.

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