While Rush Limbaugh has denied that he is the de facto thought leader of the Republican party, he's not doing much to distance himself from the idea. From laying down the law in a firebrand speech at CPAC, to bringing another critic to a humiliating heel -- in this case, RNC Chair Michael Steele -- Limbaugh's hardly been on the retreat. The question becomes: at what point does the press have to start paying attention to Limbaugh's influence, in the same way that organizations like MoveOn.org got tagged as "fringey" drivers of lefty lawmaking? Media Matters for America plans to step up its efforts in asking that question with the launch of its new "Limbaugh Wire" page.
In a press release, Media Matters' Jessica Levin writes:
Rush Limbaugh rose to prominence in the early 1990s through a relentless series of smears leveled at President Clinton, his administration, and his family. With a progressive back in the White House, Limbaugh has returned to regular attacks on the president. The Los Angeles Times described him as "the politically wounded party's unofficial leader" and his keynote speech at this weekend's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) was broadcast live on Fox News and CNN and then rebroadcast on Fox News the next day -- a treatment that, according to Fox News' Greg Jarrett, "not even the president" gets.
Limbaugh started a media firestorm with his comments in January -- just days before President Barack Obama's inauguration -- that he "hopes" Obama "fails." Since then Limbaugh has continued his drumbeat repeating this theme, recently asserting that it is not only him but "every Republican in this country" who "wants Obama to fail."
Among top conservatives, reaction to Limbaugh's sentiment has been mixed. Former Rep. Tom DeLay and former Sen. Rick Santorum have publicly agreed with Limbaugh's sentiment while some conservative figures have distanced themselves the conservative commentator. RNC Chairman Michael Steele recently joined Rep. Phil Gingrey in the list of conservative leaders who have bowed down to Limbaugh after publicly criticizing him.
With Republicans at a crossroads on whether Limbaugh speaks for the party, it might be best, as White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in yesterday's briefing, "to ask individual Republicans whether they agree with what Rush Limbaugh said this weekend."
Obviously, Media Matters has long had an eye on Limbaugh -- reporting his comments, tracking his influence, and bearing witness to the ways his rhetoric has been absorbed into the media's echo chamber and disseminated. Their new "Limbaugh Wire" page promises to be, first and foremost, a one-stop shop that collects all of the organization's ongoing efforts to monitor the "Rush Effect." And to be sure, this neatly dovetails with the ongoing, widespread effort among Democratic activists to paint Limbaugh as the dead-ender ball-and-chain strapped to the leg of contemporary conservatism. But there's a next-level inquiry brewing up here as well, namely: What happens when a political power vacuum gets filled by a media figure?