For nearly 20 years, Rush Limbaugh has bestridden the political landscape with a power and influence that transcended his talk radio niche, crossing over into the rarefied air of cultural icon. With a combination of a hail-fellow-well-met joie de vivre and a biting, sometimes vicious adder-like tongue, Limbaugh has parlayed a well-honed shtick that combines popcorn sized bites of conservative wisdom with large chunks of political red meat into a career that has made him one of the wealthiest personalities in radio.
Limbaugh does not fit any of the comfortable definitions that liberals and the media love to apply to conservatives. Calling him a mere talk show host is simply wrong. Limbaugh has crossed the cultural divide and, like President Obama, he has become more than a political figure (or entertainer) and achieved a peculiar kind of celebrity.
Ross Douthat believes a more apropos comparison is with Oprah Winfrey, someone who crosses easily between the entertainment and political world. In this respect, the irony is that both men — Limbaugh and Obama — start from the opposite sides of that divide. Limbaugh the entertainer has passed Obama while on the way to achieving his status as political bellwether of the GOP. Meanwhile, Obama was moving the other way, from political force to cultural celebrity. Loved by their legions of supporters, despised by their opponents (with both men generating a hate from their opponents that mirrors the passion of their supporters), the deliciousness of this parallel between the two men shows both the strengths and weaknesses of our political culture.
But with all his money, fame, adoring fans, and regular hobnobbing with the movers and shakers in Republican politics, there is still one thing that eludes Limbaugh: being taken seriously as a conservative leader and pundit outside of his fan base. He has already been recognized by the Republican Party as a huge asset, a game changing personality who can rally the troops with a word, exciting the base and getting them out of their houses to the polling booth. But Limbaugh wishes to be seen as more than a conservative jester or pied piper. And it is this ambition that the Democrats have decided to exploit by trying to thrust Limbaugh forward as the face of the Republican Party.
The effort has been ongoing for months and, according to Politico, is now being coordinated from the White House (as if they don’t have anything better to do). What is truly amazing, however, was the inexplicable manner in which the chairman of the Republican National Committee actually fell into line and performed brilliantly for the Democrats as a facilitator of this strategy.
Michael Steele’s appearance on CNN’s D.L. Hughley Breaks the News was a disaster for the new chairman, as the comedian savaged his party by comparing the Republican convention to a meeting of Nazis and goaded Steele into saying that Limbaugh’s show was “ugly and incendiary.” Steele also dismissed Limbaugh as “an entertainer,” which apparently drives Rush up a wall while actually playing directly and stupidly into the hands of the Democrats by denying that Limbaugh was leader of the party, that he was “de facto head” of the Republicans.