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Limbaugh Under Fire

Is Rush Limbaugh hurting the Republican Party? Some within the GOP allege that Rush turns people off to the party and is conservatism’s toxic asset. The Democratic Party, in the absence of any Republican power in Washington to attack, is taking aim at Limbaugh.

Chairman Michael Steele stepped into the middle of this battle by telling CNN’s D.L. Hugely that Rush’s rhetoric was “incendiary” and “ugly.”

Steele has since apologized and clarified: “My intent was not to go after Rush — I have enormous respect for Rush Limbaugh. … I was maybe a little bit inarticulate. … There was no attempt on my part to diminish his voice or his leadership.”

This came after Limbaugh responded to Steele’s statements with a verbal smackdown worthy of the WWF. While some may question the tone of Rush’s response, the war on Rush needs to be understood. It’s not just as an assault on a talk show host, but an attack on the movement conservatives who value his opinions. In essence, the war on Rush is a proxy war on movement conservatives, and Steele stepped in on the wrong side before correcting himself.

Steele’s interview does raise important questions. Many, including D.L. Hugely and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, have credited Rush Limbaugh as the leader of the Republicans. Many conservatives would agree.

Being leader of the conservative movement isn’t Limbaugh’s fault, doing, or even his goal. What it is, ultimately, is a reproach on Republican leadership at all levels.

A look around Capitol Hill will show why some embrace Rush as the leader of conservatives. There’s no Newt Gingrich. John Boehner and Mitch McConnell have inspired no confidence from the Republican base, and, after a promising a start, NRSC Chairman John Cornyn (R-TX) has begun to talk of helping elect moderates and getting the NRSC involved in Republican primaries to ensure that the stronger (read: “more moderate”) Republicans get nominated.

At the RNC, Steele may claim he is the de facto leader of the Republican Party, but at this point, a large chunk of Americans don’t know who Steele is. Others distrust him for his work with the Republican Leadership Council.

Unlike the leadership of the Republican Party, Limbaugh is trusted by most conservatives. The flap over Limbaugh admitting he hopes Obama fails is a prime example of why people have faith in Limbaugh and not Republican leaders. Limbaugh raked Steele over the coals on Monday and demanded to know why, if Steele wants Obama to succeed, he keeps getting RNC faxes challenging, attacking, and exposing Obama’s agenda?

When many on the right say they hope Obama succeeds, they don’t mean, “I hope Obama is able to socialize medicine, get card check, and the Freedom of Choice Act passed, while getting every Christmas tree item he mentioned during the campaign passed through Congress.” Usually Republicans mean, “I hope Obama doesn’t crash the economy or make a foreign policy mistake that leads to thousands of Americans dying.” Or they hope he succeeds by forgetting everything he campaigned on and becoming a supply-sider.

Rush’s “I hope he fails” is far closer to the hearts of conservatives who really do not want Obama to succeed in pushing through his agenda, even if they’re not cheering for the country to go down in flames.

Rush Limbaugh isn’t perfect, but he’s closer to the minds of most Americans than the party’s leaders in Washington are. This doesn’t mean he should be the leader of the conservative movement.

Being the leader of the conservative movement means building coalitions, being diplomatic, and setting policy directions. This is not in Rush’s DNA. After CPAC, John Hawkins complained that Limbaugh didn’t seem to understand that Republicans need to come out with serious policies in areas like health care and education. This illustrates the problem with Rush as the leader of conservatives. Rush Limbaugh doesn’t spend his weekends typing bills and coming up with policies. He doesn’t organize movements. He rarely even urges people to call Congress. Limbaugh provides his listeners with information and his opinion. What they do with it is up to them.

Limbaugh isn’t the next great conservative leader. Like most conservatives, he’s waiting for that leadership to emerge. Unlike another prominent American, I think it’s very unlikely that Limbaugh will conclude, “I’m the one I’ve been waiting for.”

Republicans worried about Limbaugh costing the GOP votes need to get in touch with reality. Come November 2010, if Obama’s policies have failed to revive our nation’s economy, attacking Rush Limbaugh won’t save the Democrats.

For the conservatives who believe they should be the leader of the conservative movement, your task is simple. Convince conservatives to follow you. Give us an agenda that will make us feel like investing time and money in your cause. If you fail to do that, don’t blame Rush Limbaugh or anyone else.