Itâ€™s been a giggle this week watching Democrats paint Rush Limbaugh as the â€œbloated, drug-addledâ€ head of the Republican Party, as Paul Begala put it the other day. Itâ€™s been even more of a giggle watching Republicans contort themselves into rhetorical knots as they try to deny Limbaughâ€™s stature without offending the man himself.
Democrats have been playing a lot of winning hands lately, and this is another one. Theyâ€™ve learned the trick that Republicans used throughout the Bush years: When thereâ€™s a leadership vacuum in the opposing party, focus your attention on the person whom voters will find most unpalatable. Hillary, then Nancy Pelosi were the GOPâ€™s bogeywomen. Now, since positively no one is afraid of Mitch McConnell or John Boehner, since no one has yet stopped laughing at Michael Steele or Sarah Palin, and since Bobby Jindal still needs to find a grown-up first name (if not a persona to match), Democrats smartly have anointed Rush as (to borrow a phrase) The One.
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To the extent that the Dems can encourage Americans to equate Limbaugh with opposition to President Obamaâ€™s grand schemes â€“ and to the extent that they can keep us more disgusted with Limbaughâ€™s oft-stated hope that â€œObama failsâ€ than we are concerned about the fiscal ramifications of Obamaâ€™s potential success â€“ they will have played this game of misdirection brilliantly. But letâ€™s not pretend that itâ€™s anything more than a game.
After all, Limbaugh isnâ€™t even a politician with a vote in Washington. And as a conservative blowhard in an era when conservatism is on the wane, heâ€™s gone from Sixty to Zero in about four months. I mean, shoot â€“ I bet I have more influence over public policy than Rush does right now.
Now, I recognize that, on the face of it, this claim seems utterly preposterous. Rush has 20 million listeners a week! (At least, he does in his own mind.) Even if that total is reached by multiplying his largest-ever daily listenership by five, thatâ€™s still 4 million loyal Dittoheads hanging on his every word. Meanwhile, this column attracts maybe 100 readers in its best week — half of whom seem to want every politician and bureaucrat in the nation, of both parties, to be herded into a barn and torched like Hanna Schmitzâ€™ victims in The Reader. (Spoiler alert! Whoops â€¦ too late.)
By the way, those of you who read this column weekly should feel free to make up a name for yourselves. Cumheads, perhaps? Take your best shot!
But while you’re doing that, hear me out, because hereâ€™s the thing: While Rush may never have had a higher profile than he does right now, he has already talked himself and those Dittoheads out of the mainstream of political thought. He has also talked the Republican Party out of its seat at the table when negotiations begin over the specifics of Obamaâ€™s plans. I mean, come on! When youâ€™re deep in the minority and the first card you play is â€œThatâ€™s socialism!â€ or, better yet, â€œI hope he failsâ€ — a statement with which all GOP politicians must now agree, or else suffer Rush’s wrath — whatâ€™s your second card?
Ever since George H.W. Bush negotiated away his â€œRead My Lipsâ€ pledge in 1990, the national Republican Party has come to see politics as a zero-sum, all-or-nothing game. Unless youâ€™re negotiating over their agenda, theyâ€™re not playing. It worked out great for them (not so great for the country) when they had congressional majorities and the White House — but if youâ€™re going to use majority status as a bludgeon, as Karl Rove preached and the GOP Congress practiced for 14 years, then you should expect to suffer the blows from that bludgeon once youâ€™re on the outside.
It wasnâ€™t always thus. Decent numbers of Republicans joined with Democrats to pass FDRâ€™s New Deal and LBJâ€™s Great Society; Tip Oâ€™Neill negotiated closely with Ronald Reagan over his tax cuts in 1981. Even in 2001, Democrats chose to negotiate W.â€™s tax cuts as far down as they could and then cast a few votes for them, rather than run away and sulk (or even filibuster). Shrub had â€œwonâ€ the election, after all, and in time-honored tradition the Democrats allowed him a fair shot at passing his agenda. But Republicans offered no such deference to Bill Clinton in 1993, helping kill his (comparatively infinitessimal) stimulus bill and voting en masse against his first budget, just as they did last month.
Obama, following through on his promise to “change the way Washington works,” attempted bipartisanship on the stimulus bill, but Republicans whined he wasnâ€™t trying hard enough â€“ precisely because he wasnâ€™t tossing his own agenda aside and accepting theirs. Maybe Obama will try it again this time. But why should he try very hard, when those â€œmainstreamâ€ Republicans â€“ cowed by Limbaugh into ideological purity â€“ almost certainly will vote in unison against the budget the same way they did on the stimulus?
The only Republicans certain to get Obamaâ€™s ear this spring are the three remaining moderates, Collins, Spector and Snowe â€“ and none of them is likely to be moved an inch by Limbaugh’s protestations. (Hereâ€™s the fun part: Obama can talk to just the three of them, and maybe make a few incremental concessions, and still trumpet his bipartisanship!) Sure, Rush (and Hannity, and Oâ€™Reilly, and the rest of the conservative echo chamber) will rant and rave and incite listeners to bombard their representatives with vicious mail. But in the end â€“ because their definition of success hinges only on Obamaâ€™s abject failure, rather than their own ability to negotiate the best possible compromise with the majority â€“ they have marginalized themselves, and they will be speaking to no one of consequence.
MSNBCâ€™s Joe Scarborough â€“ one of the few dissenters from that channelâ€™s liberal echo chamber â€“ defined his partyâ€™s current stature succinctly on Meet the Press last weekend. As Dee Dee Myers tried to outline the obstacles in Obamaâ€™s path, Morning Joe interrupted, â€œWhoâ€™s going to fight him? Thatâ€™s like me going up to a 7-year-old and saying, â€˜I know this fight is not going to be easyâ€™ â€¦ Heâ€™s going to pass this overwhelmingly. It is going to be easy.â€
Heâ€™s right, insofar as Republican opposition is concerned. But the shape of the final budget legislation will be determined, in large part, by the influence brought to bear on Democratic senators and House members. Arguing from the right, opposing the breadth of change Obama has laid out, will be the interest groups that hold a stake in the status quo. Somewhere in the middle will be the legislatorsâ€™ constituents — a populace whose minds are still changeable, but not by the likes of Limbaugh. And arguing from the left will be the â€œNetrootsâ€ activists and bloggers, who will fight to make sure Obama and congressional Dems donâ€™t wimp out.
From the looks of things so far, Iâ€™ll be in that last group, struggling to ensure (for example) that stuff like that â€œHarry and Louiseâ€ bullshit from 1994 doesnâ€™t fly this time. And to the extent that I can cajole participation in the political process from you â€“ the few, the proud, the Cumheads â€“ I will, indeed, have more influence on our nationâ€™s future direction than Rush Limbaugh.
First, though, I think Iâ€™m going to have to work on that nickname.