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Getting Rush Wrong By: Andrew Cline
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, March 06, 2009

When White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel went on national television last week to call radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh “the voice and the intellectual force and energy behind the Republican Party,” he didn’t mean it as a compliment. Shortly thereafter, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs deliberately twisted Limbaugh’s words to try to score cheap political points against him. No less than President Obama himself has repeatedly attacked Limbaugh by name. The Democratic National Committee is now sending out press releases challenging Republicans to distance themselves from Limbaugh.

The wisdom of this political strategy is very much in doubt. More Americans listen to Rush Limbaugh in any given week than watch an episode of “Survivor.” His audience is more than twice as large as the readership of The Washington Post, larger by several million than the readership of The New York Times, and about four million larger than the audience of the NBC Nightly News, America’s most-watched network news program. Why in the world would President Obama decide that it’s a great idea to attack America’s most popular broadcaster and his millions of listeners?

The answer is that he has written off conservative America. It seems that the stirring appeals to bipartisanship were never sincere. If they were, the president would have offered the Republicans some substantial concessions to get their votes on the stimulus and budget bills. He did not. He got the stimulus bill anyway, and clearly thinks he will get the budget, too. He now believes that he can pass his entire agenda, from a $3.6 trillion budget that is $1.75 trillion in the red to cap-and-trade to universal health care, with a few moderate Republican votes. President Obama has concluded that he does not need conservatives to govern. So, they are free to be attacked as the enemies of progress and economic recovery.

But President Obama does need to prevent conservatives from turning moderate and liberal Republicans against him. Thus, the attempt to marginalize Limbaugh. Portraying Limbaugh as a pariah is Obama’s way of giving moderate Republicans the cover they need to vote for his agenda.

By making Limbaugh, and not Obama’s own radical plans to remake America in Europe’s image, the topic of discussion, the White House has already begun dividing the Right. All of a sudden, Republicans and conservatives are being asked to defend Limbaugh. GOP Chairman Michael Steele responded by calling Limbaugh’s show “incendiary” and “ugly.” Apparently, he doesn’t listen very much. The show is the former (and that’s a good thing), but certainly not the latter, except when Rush makes a bad joke, which does happen on occasion. Commentator David Frum responded, too, calling Limbaugh the Jesse Jackson of the Republican Party and urging Republicans to push him aside.

This is precisely what Obama wants. Conservatives and Republicans mustn’t take the bait. Rush Limbaugh isn’t the issue; Barack Obama’s attempt to enlarge the federal government by an additional two percentage points of Gross Domestic Product this year alone is.

Ironically, Republicans worried that Rush is now the face of the party have only themselves to blame. For eight years, Rush warned Republicans that they would lose power if they abandoned conservatism. They abandoned conservatism. And they lost power. Now no one, not even Michael Steele, knows what it means to be a Republican anymore. Along with its leaders, the party has lost its guiding philosophy. Not so Rush Limbaugh.

In the last half century, American conservatism has had five primary torch bearers: Barry Goldwater, Bill Buckley, Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, and Rush Limbaugh. Goldwater, Reagan, and Buckley are dead. Gingrich remains an intellectual force but is not leading a mass movement. Rush Limbaugh is now the voice of conservatism in America. He is not only the most prominent conservative, but he is the best at explaining conservatism to the people, and he is the most passionate champion of conservative core principles. No one else is even close.

Frum, for whom I have great respect, argues that conservatives need a sophisticated spokesman to match Barack Obama’s class and elegance. That is true in the long run, but not necessarily right now. With the Republican Party going through a post-Bush identity crisis, trying to decide if it's a conservative or neoconservative party, a populist to rouse the rabble against the largest expansion of government power and authority in our lifetime is clearly needed. No one fills that role better than Limbaugh.

At the moment, the Left and Right are represented by their most capable communicators: Obama and Limbaugh. Neither of these men was chosen by party elders. Both rose to prominence on the power of their ability to convince others to follow them. The question for Republicans is this: Who will emerge within the party to take the role Limbaugh now fills among conservatives? Pundits have attempted to put their money on Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, Mitt Romney, or Sarah Palin. But I think the answer, generically speaking, is rather obvious.

The next great leader of the Republican Party will not be anointed by party leaders. Rather, he or she is out there right now watching President Obama’s attempt to remake America in Europe’s image and getting angrier and angrier. He or she might be a small business owner or a lawyer or an executive. He or she believes in capitalism, personal responsibility, individual liberty and limited government. And maybe not every day, but regularly and as often as possible, he or she clicks on the radio, hits the first preset button on the AM dial, and listens to Rush.

While the president of the United States attempts to marginalize a radio talk show host, it will be the host who has the last word. For it likely will be one of Rush Limbaugh’s millions of listeners who ultimately rises to lead the Republican Party back to power.

Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader.

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