By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 6, 2009
By one measure, Rush Limbaugh is a clear winner this week: His ratings have nearly doubled since his feud with the White House burst into the media limelight.
But the Obama administration's strategy of trying to elevate the conservative radio commentator to leader of the opposition has prompted a vigorous counterattack, with a key Republican senator saying the move is an "outrage" that "reeks of hypocrisy coming from a president who campaigned against these very cynical political tactics last fall."
That letter from Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and a Washington Post opinion piece by House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), also accusing the White House of cynicism, underscore the GOP's attempt to make President Obama pay a political price for the rhetorical assault on Limbaugh.
Asked at a briefing Wednesday whether it was "hypocritical" for him to go after the talk radio host and criticize cable commentators, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said he would "plead guilty" to being "counterproductive."
Limbaugh said this week that White House officials are "targeting" him because "they need a demon to distract and divert from what their agenda is." He said Obama aides are "going after private citizens" in a manner reminiscent of Richard M. Nixon's "enemies list." He also challenged the president to a debate on his show.
The media have feasted on the story since Limbaugh told a conservative conference Saturday that he wants Obama to fail because he opposes the president's big-government policies. The next day, Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, told CBS that Limbaugh is "the voice and the intellectual force and energy behind the Republican Party."
Limbaugh has a 60 percent favorable rating among Republicans, while 23 percent have a negative view, according to a Gallup poll taken last month. But 63 percent of Democrats view him unfavorably, compared with 6 percent who view him positively. Independents see him negatively by an almost 2 to 1 margin.
"The people who love him are a very small segment of the public," said Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine, whose research indicates that Limbaugh's weekly audience has spiked from 14.2 million to about 25 million since the controversy escalated. "A lot of people still think he's a shock jock, a hatemonger, a right-wing radical, or hold his personal baggage against him."
Still, Harrison said, the White House attacks have effectively transformed Limbaugh from an entertainer "into the spokesman for the Republican Party," adding: "It's been a self-fulfilling prophecy of media hype."
While some Republicans have distanced themselves from Limbaugh's rhetoric, others, such as Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.), chairman of the House Republican Conference, said they agree with the radio host's denunciation of Obama's policies.
Not to be outdone, the Democratic National Committee has created a Web site to solicit slogans for an anti-Limbaugh billboard to be erected in his home town of West Palm Beach, Fla.
Mark McKinnon, a top adviser in President George W. Bush's campaigns, acknowledged the value of picking a divisive opponent. "We used a similar strategy by making Michael Moore the face of the Democratic Party," he said of the documentary filmmaker. "That's why we gave him credentials to cover the 2004 convention and then turned the spotlight on him."
But, McKinnon said, "whatever you think of Rush, he is one of the most effective political communicators in history. So I don't think turning up his microphone is necessarily a wise way to go." For Obama, he said, "a fistfight with a brawler like Rush only drags him down to the street."
Democratic strategist Chris Lehane called Limbaugh "the perfect foil" because of his popularity with the Republican base. "The media won't cover a fight if it's not perceived as a fair fight. It's a win for the Democrats and Obama, a win for Limbaugh because it enhances his stature with his audience, and probably a loss for the Republican Party."
This is not the first time Limbaugh has bedeviled a Democratic president. In 1994, Bill Clinton lashed out at conservative talk show hosts, saying that Limbaugh "has three hours to say whatever he wants" with "no truth detector." Limbaugh helped galvanize support for the Republican takeover of Congress that year.
After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Clinton attacked "the purveyors of hatred and division" for "reckless speech," prompting Limbaugh to respond that liberals were trying to foment a "national hysteria" and "use this tragedy for their own political gain."
For nearly two decades, the radio host has masterfully inserted himself into political disputes by pushing the usual boundaries. In last year's Democratic primaries, he tried to derail Obama with what he dubbed Operation Chaos, urging his followers to cross over and vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Two former Bill Clinton advisers and CNN commentators, James Carville and Paul Begala, have long targeted Limbaugh. As Politico reported, Carville and Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg commissioned a survey last fall that showed Limbaugh with high negative ratings. Carville and Begala, who are in regular contact with Emanuel, another Clinton White House veteran, have declined to say whether they urged him to single out Limbaugh.
"People are misapprehending that this is some White House strategy they sent Carville and I out on," Begala said. "I don't work for this president. I say what I say because it's what I believe. I don't like Rush."
Emanuel could not suppress a chuckle when asked in an interview why he went after Limbaugh. "I was complimenting him," he said. "But he is the head of their party."