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Limbaugh as straw man

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Limbaugh as straw man

First, President Barack Obama stroked conservative talk show kingpin Rush Limbaugh’s ego by proclaiming him the pied piper of the Republican Party. Then newly minted Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele showed some moxie by publicly asserting that he, not Limbaugh, was the GOP’s shot-caller. (That didn’t last, of course; in the next breath, the former Maryland lieutenant governor publicly pleaded for Limbaugh’s forgiveness.)

Once the internal tiff was underway, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel jumped in, lathering Limbaugh with both praise and scorn for his work as the de facto boss of the GOP. Obama and Emanuel had an ulterior motive for their comments: They wanted to prop Limbaugh up as their straw man representing the opposition, allowing them to tar the whole Republican Party as an antique, discredited and obstructionist bunch of sore losers who will stop at nothing to derail the president’s policies. Steele, on the other hand, is just simply running scared of Limbaugh.

Regardless of the motives for their comments, Obama, Steele and Emanuel have all done for Limbaugh what he couldn’t do for himself — inflate his importance and cast him as a GOP kingmaker. The radio maven got the kind of promotion that advertising agencies spend millions on, and he got it all for nothing.

That said, however, the argument is still founded on nothing but hot air. Limbaugh hasn’t stopped one Obama staff or Cabinet appointment, prevented one policy directive or executive order, or even so much as delayed movement on a single piece of legislation. That includes Limbaugh’s favorite target, Obama’s economic stimulus bill.

Limbaugh’s rambling rant at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) — complete with his confusion over what the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence say — was the topper. Of course, the heavily white and male CPAC crowd lapped up every Limbaugh inanity.

A stroll through the convention hall showed that the crowd’s divorce from political reality was almost laughable. Every anti in America was on display there — anti-taxes, anti-gay rights, anti-gun control and anti-government, to name a few — and those in attendance still continued to tout their party’s darling, Sarah Palin. This does a lot to further seal the GOP’s fate as a party stepping fast toward becoming a self-marginalized and ultimately faded political entity.

This isn’t the first time that the Obama team created and then punched away at a GOP straw man target. Soon after Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain plopped Palin on his ticket, a top Team Obama member reflexively hammered the Alaska governor. Obama quickly realized that doing so was a mistake. He did the smart thing: congratulated her on being picked as McCain’s running mate, then went back to talking about the issues.

Obama knew not to make Palin the issue. But when it comes to Limbaugh, it’s apparent that the lesson hasn’t stuck.

Here’s the problem: Making Limbaugh appear bigger than life gives steam to his inflammatory campaign of rumors, half-truths, distortions and flat-out lies about Obama, liberals and, now, Steele. Limbaugh’s aim in his fight with Steele is to further cow the GOP into stepping a line that forms behind him.

At the start of his tenure as RNC chair, Steele had the good sense to know that kowtowing to Limbaugh was a prescription for even bigger disaster for the party. He had resuscitated the old George W. Bush line from the 2000 campaign, talking about making the Republican Party one of big-tent diversity. Then, like Bush, he promptly forgot it, which flies in the face of one of the major takeaways from Obama’s election triumph — that the country’s fast-changing voting demographics look nothing like they did a decade ago.

Black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American voters now comprise nearly a quarter of the nation’s electorate, and college-educated whites make up more than one-third of the vote. At the same time, Limbaugh’s comfort-zone voter demographic — white, blue-collar, heartland and Deep South voters — have shrunk to less than 40 percent of the nation’s voters. What’s more, increased immigration and higher birth rates will continue to swell the numbers of minority and youth voters. The white electorate overall will continue to decline.

But it’s not just the numbers that work against the GOP. It’s also ideology. The Democrats’ expanding base of voters is more moderate, socially active and pro-government, the opposite of what Limbaugh’s rants support. Obama, Emanuel and Steele know this.

Still, Limbaugh has the airwaves, which remain a powerful tool to bully, badger and cajole the GOP and to rattle sabers in opposition to Obama. He’ll exploit that tool to the hilt. But that won’t make him the boss of the Republican Party or any real threat to Obama. It’ll just make him an inviting and convenient straw man.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a syndicated columnist, author and political analyst. His most recent book is “How Obama Won,” published in January by Middle Passage Press.