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White House v. Limbaugh: Grand Theatre for an Audience of Three (or Four)

Don’t kid yourself. While L’Affaire Limbaugh is incredibly entertaining political theater – among others, it dominated Matthews, Cooper, Olbermann, Maddow and Jon Stewart last night – the tactic has a calculated purpose and an immediate context: votes on the budget bill. Soon enough, it’ll be votes on health care legislation. There are really only three attendees at this play.

Senators Arlen Specter, Olympia Snowe, and Susan Collins.

(A fourth might be Sen. George Voinovich, whose state gets a visit this Friday when Barack Obama travels to Columbus.)

Upcoming legislative fights are expected to be brutal, tougher than the stimulus bill. The votes of Specter, Snowe and Collins, critical for passage of the stimulus, are still considered the first gettable Republican votes. The spectacle of Limbaugh as Republican-in-Chief sucks all the oxygen from the room when these moderate Republican senators may want cover for any potential “no” vote – or “no” leverage in negotiations.

Don’t think the White House doesn’t know that. Gibbs yesterday: “I think maybe the best question, though, is for you to ask individual Republicans whether they agree with what Rush Limbaugh said this weekend. Do they want to see the President’s economic agenda fail?” (emphasis added). It’s not about Limbaugh. It’s about Specter, et. al. It’s about winning the budget fight, the health care fight.

Gibbs was buoyant at Limbaugh questions. Like a schoolteacher rewarding a pupil, Gibbs called one Limbaugh question “a good question.” A bit later, Chuck Todd suggested, “well, just ignore (Limbaugh).” No, no, no, no. The White House wants this. Gibbs leapt to the defense of questioners:

Look, I don’t think it’s a crazy question to ask about the commenting on whether or not somebody that seems to be, maybe for lack of a better word, a national spokesperson for conservative views and many in the Republican Party, what do I think about, or what does this White House think about him, on at least two separate occasions in front of large and applauding audiences seeking the failure of the President’s economic agenda.

In other words: “C’mon Chuck, the Limbaugh question is a really, really good journalistic question, and we support good journalism.”

Sunday, Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel somberly “complimented” Limbaugh’s intellectual honesty in wanting Obama to fail: “He is the voice and the intellectual force and energy behind the Republican Party, and he has been upfront about what he views, and hasn’t stepped back from that, which is he hopes for failure.” The White House doesn’t want to miss a layup.

Not everyone agrees. Today, veteran Democratic messaging strategist Peter Daou panned the Limbaugh strategy, arguing that while it may seem like a good idea today due to irrational Democratic exuberance in the afterglow of the election, in the long term elevating Limbaugh is a mistake because his toxic effect on political debate will ultimately hurt Democrats. Daou, who worked for Hillary Clinton, also mocks the idea of Obama’s powerful campaign as pure myth, instead suggesting that Obama beat Clinton because Limbaugh tore her down for 15 years.

Daou is completely wrong about why Obama won, but that’s incidental. He’s wrong about Limbaugh because Limbaugh is already a tested brand, and the verdict has been rendered. Muhammad Ali, he is not. Independents aren’t going to suddenly start listening to Rush somewhere down the road, just as they aren’t going to suddenly start appreciating Al Sharpton, who also has a brand. Limbaugh doesn’t have any new, dynamic ideas that will one day become ascendant if the Democrats aren’t careful. Limbaugh has precisely the same ideas, and proudly boasts he always will:

We’ve got factions now within our own movement seeking power to dominate it, and worst of all to redefine it. Well, the Constitution doesn’t need to be redefined. Conservative intellectuals, the Declaration of Independence does not need to be redefined and neither does conservativism. Conservativism is what it is and it is forever.

Most significantly, the Obama brand and Limbaugh brand are in direct opposition. Obama’s brand is about intellectual curiosity, empathy, personal respect for his ideological counterparts, and problem-solving. Limbaugh plays “Barack the Magic Negro” on his show and makes fun of Michael J. Fox’ Parkinson’s disease.

Do Snowe and Collins want Obama showing up in Portland, Maine, name-dropping Limbaugh in a speech, and then facing those inevitable questions Gibbs urged the press to ask of them? It’s increasingly clear that, having already taken control of the public perception of bargaining in good faith, Obama is willing to become more rhetorically aggressive.

This weekend, we saw a subtle but key shift in Obama’s rhetoric. Did anyone notice Obama’s most recent YouTube address? Andrew Malcolm at the L.A. Times, in a caustically hostile post yesterday, said that on public relations with the budget and healthcare Obama “doesn’t think either are going too well.”

However, for those used to watching Obama’s tone carefully, the final minute of Saturday’s 5-minute internet video address – echoed again in Obama’s remarks introducing Kathleen Sebelius as HHS nominee – is strikingly more feisty. The first few minutes is normal Obama, the last minute says, “bring it on.” Key graf:

I know these steps won’t sit well with the special interests and lobbyists who are invested in the old way of doing business, and I know they’re gearing up for a fight as we speak. My message to them is this: So am I.

The system we have now might work for the powerful and well-connected interests that have run Washington for far too long, but I don’t. I work for the American people. I didn’t come here to do the same thing we’ve been doing or to take small steps forward, I came to provide the sweeping change that this country demanded when it went to the polls in November.

Without any Republican willing to stand up to Limbaugh, there’s no middle ground between him and Obama, and nowhere to hide for the few moderate Senate Republicans Obama needs. Ultimately, this tactic is about the votes this year, the ones that will make or break the Obama presidency. If successful health care legislation is passed because Arlen Specter votes for it, Obama is willing to trade off a few more bucks in Limbaugh’s pocket.