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GOP Seeks Balance With Conservative Icon Limbaugh

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.

Washington has been dramatically reshaped since 1994, the last time the GOP did not control the White House, the House and the Senate, but Limbaugh has been a constant, remaining one of the most powerful voices among conservatives. He helped lead opposition to President Bill Clinton's agenda, as well as parts of President George W. Bush's, particularly his proposal to make it easier for illegal immigrants to become citizens.

In the early days of the Obama administration, while congressional Republicans have generally avoided directly attacking the popular new president and instead criticized their Democratic counterparts as not properly implementing Obama's vision, Limbaugh dubbed the economic stimulus package "the Obama 'porkulus' bill" and was credited with playing a role in House Republicans' unanimous opposition to the legislation. In a meeting with congressional leaders, the president complained about Limbaugh's influence.

Some congressional Republicans have defended Limbaugh's comments about wanting Obama to fail, which the talk radio host has explained by saying he wants the president's policies to fail, not the country. (His full statement was, "So what is so strange about saying I want Barack Obama to fail if his mission is to reconstruct and reform this nation so that capitalism and individual liberty are not its foundation? I want the country to survive. I want the country to succeed.")

"I know what Rush Limbaugh meant," House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) said on CNN yesterday. "Look, everybody wants America to succeed, but everyone like me, Rush Limbaugh and others who believe in limited government, who believe in conservative values, wants the policies this administration is bringing forward . . . to fail."

But other Republicans have argued that Limbaugh's style is counter-productive. They say that in looking to woo moderate votes to regain control of Congress and the White House, Republicans must take positions that may annoy Limbaugh and his audience.

David Frum, who was a speechwriter for George W. Bush and helped coin the phrase the "axis of evil," wrote on his Web site NewMajority.com that "nothing Steele said will be 1/1000 as harmful to Republicans and conservatives as Rush Limbaugh's now multiply repeated statement that he hopes President Obama fails."

In a recent interview, Frum said: "My main problem with talk radio is things you're doing to excite a loyal audience are very different than things you do to try to win back the departed middle" of the electorate. "We can't win elections by getting our core voters agitated. But if you're a talk radio host and you have 5 million who listen and there are 50 million people who hate you, you can make a nice living. If you're a Republican Party, you're marginalized."

One state GOP chairman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to criticize Limbaugh publicly, said "he is the leader of a niche of the Republican Party that simply opposes anything a Democrat ever comes up with."

But most remain vocal defenders of the radio show host, saying he fires up the GOP base better than anyone else.

"He does far more good than harm," said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.). "The people who listen to talk radio are more politically interested and politically active than people who are listening to ESPN. If you want to get the message out, that's the way to go."

Steele took on the delicate political calculation Republicans face more bluntly, saying yesterday: "I'm not here to tick off my base."

Staff writer Chris Cillizza contributed to this report

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