Top Democrats believe they have struck political gold by depicting Rush Limbaugh as the new face of the Republican Party, a full-scale effort first hatched by some of the most familiar names in politics and now being guided in part from inside the White House. The strategy took shape after Democratic strategists Stanley Greenberg and James Carville included Limbaugh’s name in an October poll and learned their longtime tormentor was deeply unpopular with many Americans, especially younger voters. Then the conservative talk-radio host emerged as an unapologetic critic of Barack Obama shortly before his inauguration, when even many Republicans were showering him with praise.Soon it clicked: Democrats realized they could roll out a new GOP bogeyman for the post-Bush era by turning to an old one in Limbaugh, a polarizing figure since he rose to prominence in the 1990s.
Limbaugh is embracing the line of attack, suggesting a certain symbiosis between him and his political adversaries.
“The administration is enabling me,” he wrote in an e-mail to Politico. “They are expanding my profile, expanding my audience and expanding my influence. An ever larger number of people are now being exposed to the antidote to Obamaism: conservatism, as articulated by me. An ever larger number of people are now exposed to substantive warnings, analysis and criticism of Obama’s policies and intentions, a ‘story’ I own because the [mainstream media] is largely the Obama Press Office.”
The bigger, the better, agreed Carville. “It’s great for us, great for him, great for the press,” he said of Limbaugh. “The only people he’s not good for are the actual Republicans in Congress.”
If Limbaugh himself were to coin a phrase for it, he might call it Operation Rushbo – an idea that started out simply enough but quickly proved to be deeply resonant by a rapid succession of events, say Democrats inside and outside the West Wing.
The seeds were planted in October after Democracy Corps, the Democratic polling company run by Carville and Greenberg, included Limbaugh’s name in a survey and found that many Americans just don’t like him.
“His positives for voters under 40 was 11 percent,” Carville recalled with a degree of amazement, alluding to a question about whether voters had a positive or negative view of the talk show host.
Paul Begala, a close friend of Carville, Greenberg and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, said they found Limbaugh’s overall ratings were even lower than the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s controversial former pastor, and William Ayers, the domestic terrorist and Chicago resident who Republicans sought to tie to Obama during the campaign.
Then came what Begala called “the tripwire.”
“I hope he fails,” Limbaugh said of Obama on his show four days before the president was sworn in. It was a time when Obama’s approval ratings were soaring, but more than that, polls showed even people who didn’t vote for him badly wanted him to succeed, coming to office at a time of economic meltdown.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was the first to jump on the statement, sending the video to its membership to raise cash and stir a petition drive.
“We helped get the ball rolling on this because we’re looking and listening to different Republican voices around the country, and the one that was the loudest and getting the most attention was Rush Limbaugh,” explained DCCC chairman and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).
The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank run by former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta, also pounced on Limbaugh’s “fail” line, drawing attention to it on their well-read blog.
Soon after, Americans United for Change, a liberal group, was airing Limbaugh’s statement in an ad aimed at pushing Senate Republicans to support the stimulus bill.
“It just cropped up out of how much play that comment was getting on the air,” said Brad Woodhouse, who runs the group and is about to take over as communications director at the Democratic National Committee. “When we did it and it generated so much press, it just started to snowball from there.”
But liberals quickly realized that trying to drive a wedge between congressional Republicans and Limbaugh was unlikely to work, and their better move was to paint the GOP as beholden to the talk show host.
This was driven home to them, according to one Democrat, when Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) took a shot at Limbaugh in late January only to appear on his program the next day and plead having momentarily had “foot-in-mouth disease.”
By February, Carville and Begala were pounding on Limbaugh frequently in their appearances on CNN.
Neither Democrat would say so, but a third source said the two also began pushing the idea of targeting Limbaugh in their daily phone conversations with Emanuel.
Conversations and email exchanges began taking place in and out of the White House not only between the old pals from the Clinton era but also including White House senior adviser David Axelrod, Deputy Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Woodhouse.
The White House needed no more convincing after Limbaugh’s hour-plus performance this past weekend, celebrated on the right and mocked on the left, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where he re-stated his hope Obama fails.
“He kicked this into full-gear at CPAC by reiterating it,” said a senior White House official of Limbaugh.
By Sunday morning, Emanuel elevated the strategy by bringing up the conservative talker, unprompted, on CBS’s “Face the Nation” and calling him the “the voice and the intellectual force and energy behind the Republican Party.”
Even Republican National Chairman Michael Steele joined in with a surprising critique of Limbaugh as a mere “entertainer,” who is “ugly” and “incendiary.”
“He took a little match we had tossed on the leaves and poured gasoline on it,” said one Democrat of Steele.
Steele was forced into calling Limbaugh to apologize Monday, an embarrassing climb-down following the RNC chairman’s criticism of the conservative talk-show host.
But Democrats kept at it in rapid-fire succession, thrilled that Steele had validated their claim that Republicans were scared to cross Limbaugh.
Americans United for Change launched a new ad featuring Limbaugh’s CPAC appearance. A left-leaning media watchdog group began a new Limbaugh tracking homepage. Democratic National Chairman Tim Kaine tweaked Steele for his apology. Terry McAuliffe tried to inject Limbaugh into the Virginia governor’s race. The DCCC launched a new website, www.imsorryrush.com, mocking the Republicans who have had to apologize to Limbaugh.
And Gibbs served up a made-for-cable-TV quote to end his daily briefing Tuesday.
“I was a little surprised at the speed in which Mr. Steele, the head of the RNC, apologized to the head of the Republican Party,” Gibbs quipped with a grin, before striding out of the press room.
David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager last year and a member of his inner circle still, will publish an op-ed in Wednesday’s Washington Post chiding Republicans for being “paralyzed with fear of crossing their leader.”
A senior White House aide has been tasked with helping to guide the Limbaugh strategy.
Outside, Americans United for Choice, a liberal group, and the Democratic National Committee are driving the message, in close consultation with the White House.
Democrats can barely suppress their smiles these days, overjoyed at the instant-ad imagery of Limbaugh clad in Johnny Cash-black at CPAC and, more broadly, at what they see as their success in managing to further marginalize a party already on the outs.
“I want to send Rush a bottle of vitamins,” said Begala. “We need him to stay healthy and loud and proud.”
With President George W. Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney out of the White House and Tom DeLay gone from Congress, the left had been suddenly absent an unpopular right-wing figure.
Few Americans know who the congressional Republican leaders are. Even Sarah Palin is now four time zones away from Washington.
It’s something of a back to the future tactic for Democrats: painting the GOP as the party of the angry white male. But unlike Newt Gingrich or other prominent Republicans, Limbaugh doesn’t have to mind his tongue.
And the liberal political apparatus is at battle stations taking note of his every comment.
Media Matters, the left-leaning media watchdog and advocacy group, began a “Limbaugh Wire” web-site Tuesday to track him. “For a long time Americans haven’t really been aware that he’s so influential,” said Eric Burns, the group’s president.
Democrats are now working hard to ensure that changes.
“He’s driving the Republican reluctance to deal with Obama, which Americans want,” said Greenberg. “He’s the policeman [keeping them in line].”
They’ll all get a fresh hook for the story after Wednesday, when a Democratic polling firm goes into the field to test, among other things, Limbaugh’s standing with the public.
All the attention only offers upside for the buzz-hungry Limbaugh, said Carville.
“The television cameras just can’t stay away from him,” Carville said Tuesday, a day when cable news played images of Limbaugh seemingly on a loop. “Our strategy depends on him keeping talking, and I think we’re going to succeed.”