Team Obama’s Petty Limbaugh Strategy

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The McCain campaign would much rather have the story about phony and foolish diversions than about the future. . . . We have real problems in this country right now and the American people are looking to us for answers, not distractions, not diversions, not manipulations.Barack Obama, Norfolk, Va., September 10, 2008

President Obama won the presidency by promising to be a different, more substantive, less gimmicky leader. He said he would not waste our time on “phony outrage,” like fulminations on the meaning of “lipstick on a pig,” or silly characters like “Joe The Plumber,” a guy who was actually named Samuel and was not even a licensed plumber. No, Obama said he was going to solve problems instead. Now that he is in the White House, he still makes this case, almost every day. On Wednesday morning, during an address about contracting reforms, he referred dismissively to the “chatter on the cable stations.”

But what is the chatter on the cable stations? For most of this week, and for much of the last month, it has been about Rush Limbaugh. Hour after hour, daytime pundits are asked a litany of banal Rush questions: Does Rush really run the Republican Party? Why did RNC chair Michael Steele apologize to Rush? What does it mean that Rush addressed conservatives last weekend? As Jonathan Martin makes clear in the Politico today, this entire controversy has been cooked up and force fed to the American people by Obama’s advisers.* In other words, it’s not the kind of change you can believe in.

First off, let us settle on the facts. The Republican Party is lost and largely leaderless, much as Democrats were in the wake of the 2000 and 2004 elections. Rush Limbaugh, a self described “entertainer,” is probably the most famous and popular spokesman for the conservative cause that has long undergirded the GOP. But he no more runs the Republican Party than Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie run Hollywood. To put it another way, he is a talented pitchman, a powerful communicator, the Clark Gable of his day. But the producers and directors of the Republican cause still reside in Congress, in fundraising networks and in state executive mansions. And while all of these people are terrified of crossing Rush, their biggest brand name, and will apologize profusely to any perceived slight, they are about as beholden to Limbaugh as MGM’s Louis Mayer was beholden to Gable.

So why are we talking about Rush? According to Martin, the Rush “controversy” began as an idea last fall that followed a poll taken by Stanley Greenberg, who owns the house where White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel stays when he is in Washington. With his old Clinton Administration colleagues, Paul Begala and James Carville, Greenberg realized that Limbaugh was deeply unpopular among wide swaths of the American electorate. So, the strategists figured, why not turn the turn Republican Party into a Limbaughesque caricature? Limbaugh, a consummate publicity hound, was only too eager to help. Earlier this year, he said he hoped Obama “fails,” a reasonable claim in context, given that Limbaugh’s entire worldview is constructed around an opposition to the sorts of policies that Obama has proposed.

But echoed over the “chatter on the cable stations” thanks to Obama aides, including Emanuel and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, Limbaugh’s comment took on a whiff of treason. Limbaugh’s rapid comebacks to the White House assault created what economists might call a “downward spiral” effect. “It’s great for us, great for him, great for the press,” Carville told the Politico, describing the White House and Limbaugh. “The only people he’s not good for are the actual Republicans in Congress.”

But here’s the rub: If you believed what Obama said during the campaign, then Carville is dead wrong. Republicans in Congress are not the only losers. The American people also lose. At a time of unprecedented threats to the United States, a time of financial collapse, bank failures and record layoffs, at a time when the credit crisis has not been solved, and the stock market is in free fall, at a time of stagnating wars, rising terrorism in Pakistan and growing nuclear potential in Iran, the White House has done the easy thing. It has asked the American people to focus their attention not on solving the problems, but on a big-mouthed entertainer in Florida. This may be smart politics. But it is also the same petty strategy that John McCain employed during the presidential campaign, the one that our new president promised to rise above.

UPDATE: Don’t miss David Von Drehle’s take on the White House/Limbaugh noise.

* By advisers here I am including the outside Democratic strategists and supporters discussed above who have influenced the White House line on Limbaugh.

ALSO: As Sam Stein points out, Gibbs said today, in a light tone, that he will “plead guilty to being counterproductive” by feeding the cable news beast. Of course, in saying that, he only further fed the beast.