Limbaugh: Friend or Foe of GOP?

Limbaugh more vocal than ever, but is he helping or hurting Republicans?

January 29, 2009, 1:38 PM

Jan. 29, 2009 — -- As members of the Republican National Committee try to regroup from the disastrous election cycle and prepare to choose the party's next chairman, some Republicans are left wondering whether conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh has emerged as a leader – albeit an unofficial one – of the GOP.

In the week since President Obama took the oath of office, Limbaugh's name was dropped by the new president as someone Republicans should not listen to, spurring the radio superstar to boast that he believes Obama is "frightened" of him.

In today's Wall Street Journal, Limbaugh penned an op-ed in which he proposed his own version of the stimulus package.

And when one Republican congressman spoke out against Limbaugh – effectively calling him a hindrance to the party – the talk show host booked the congressman on his syndicated radio show, allowing him an opportunity to grovel and ask for forgiveness.

"I want to express to you my very sincere regret for those comments," Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., told Limbaugh.

"I just wanted to tell you Rush, and all our conservative giants who help us so much to maintain our base and grow it and get back the majority, that I regret those stupid comments," said Gingrey.

With the Republican Party still stinging from the Democratic landslide, Sydney Blumenthal, a former Clinton adviser and author of "The Strange Death of Republican America: Chronicles of a Collapsing Party," said that Limbaugh is finding himself in a familiar position.

"I remember when The National Review ran Limbaugh on their cover in 1993 saying he's the leader of the Republican Party," said Blumenthal. "This is a reoccurring pattern that when the Republicans hit rock bottom, Limbaugh is proclaimed the leader of the party."

"There are no obvious agreed national leaders of the Republican Party right now, and so the radio talk show celebrity substitutes for an actual political leader," he said. "While the stock market's declined, the market for loud talk show hosts has not."

Limbaugh: The Voice of the GOP?

Gingrey's original sentiments – weighing just how much Limbaugh is helping mobilize and unify the struggling party – haven't gone unnoticed among party members who have been weighing the pros and cons of having a polarizing figure like Limbaugh on their team.

Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio believes that Limbaugh is just what the party needs to regain its focus.

"From the standpoint of providing a focal point I think he's being helpful," said Fabrizio. "After two rounds of dismal elections any of those Bush guys who are left and haven't drowned are in life rafts looking for direction."

"Someone who is kind of like true North – and that's the role Limbaugh is playing," he said. "He's out there sticking to his guns, talking about principle and there are a lot of these guys who are hungry for some direction."

Republican consultant Reggie Bashur agrees with Fabrizio, and says that Limbaugh's wide reaching clout could do the party good, but only if specific and tangible ideas – and not just rejections of Obama's administration – are proposed.

"Limbaugh is well-respected and has a huge audience and is very influential among the Republican base and the primary voter," said Bashur. "I think he could help push some ideas as an alternative."

"If we can't embrace what Obama is trying to do, then it's critical that the party offer an alternative that the public understands is legitimate," said Bashur. "The public is not going to accept a party that just says 'no.'"

"It's politically dangerous for the party to appear to be obstructionist or naysayers and not to give the new president and his programs a chance," he said.

But Richard Norton Smith, an ABC News consultant and former director of the Lincoln, Hoover, Eisenhower, Reagan and Ford libraries, isn't so sure that Limbaugh will continue to be a strong voice within the party as Obama promotes bi-partisanship.

"The problem is that the mood of the country has changed and Limbaugh hasn't," said Smith. "It's a fundamentally different political and maybe cultural climate."

Rooting for Obama to Fail

Limbaugh's thumb-in-the-eye style of politics was on display shortly after Obama was inaugurated and Limbaugh announced that he was rooting for Obama to "fail."

"Limbaugh personified the 50/50 red, blue culture that we've become to assume over the last generation of American politics," he said. "But Obama from the beginning has based his campaign on changing the tone in Washington and reaching across the aisle, and that's a pie in the face to the Limbaugh model."

According to Smith, Limbaugh has his greatest success when people are most suspicious of Washington. Today, said Smith, there has been a fundamental shift in people's attitudes toward the roll of government and the Republican Party is ready to put the past behind them.

"Under those circumstances there are Republicans who want the country to succeed and are perfectly willing to see the president succeed," he said.

"In that sense, Limbaugh may be spitting into the wind."

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