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Earl Ofari Hutchinson Headshot

The Limbaugh Strawman

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First President Barack Obama stroked talk show kingpin Rush Limbaugh's ego by proclaiming him the pied piper of the GOP. Next Republican National Chair Michael Steele showed some moxie and publicly told Limbaugh that he was the shot caller in the GOP. That didn't last. In the next breath, he publicly pleaded for forgiveness from Limbaugh for his momentary pique. Then top Obama advisor Rahm Emanuel jumped in and lathered Limbaugh with praise and scorn as the boss of the GOP. Obama and Emanuel had an ulterior motive. They propped up Limbaugh as their straw man to tar the GOP as an antique, discredited, and obstructionist bunch of sore losers who will stop at nothing to derail Obama's policies. Steele is just simply running scared of Limbaugh.

But in either case, they have done what Limbaugh couldn't do for himself and that's to wildly inflate his importance as the GOP kingmaker. Limbaugh got the kind of promotion that ad companies spend millions on for nothing. But it's still nothing but hot air. Limbaugh hasn't stopped one Obama staff or cabinet appointment, prevented one policy directive, executive order, or a single piece of legislation. That includes Limbaugh's favorite target Obama's economic stimulus bill. Heck, Limbaugh couldn't even stop his arch nemesis, Al Franken, from bagging the Minnesota senate seat. Franken's the guy who outrageously wolf ticketed Limbaugh as the big fat idiot, and then turned the wolfing into a best selling book.

Limbaugh's rambling, long winded, rant at the Conservative Political Action Conference, complete with his confusion over what the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence say, was the topper. The crowd which was heavily white and male, lapped up every Limbaugh inanity. A stroll through the convention hall showed that the crowd's Cloud Nine divorce from political reality was almost laughable. Every anti in America -- taxes, gay rights, gun control, and government, as well as touting their darling Sarah Palin -- was on display there. This does a lot to further seal the GOP's lot as a party that is stepping fast toward becoming a self-marginalized, mean spirited, faded political entity.

This isn't the first time that the Obama team created and then punched away at a GOP strawman target. When Republican rival John McCain plopped Sarah Palin on his ticket, a top Team Obama member reflexively hammered Palin. Obama quickly realized that it was a colossal mistake. He did the smart thing and simply congratulated her on being picked as McCain's VP candidate and then went back to talking about the issues. He knew not to make her the issue. But the lesson hasn't stuck in the case of Limbaugh.

By making Limbaugh bigger than life in American politics, it gives steam to his inflammatory campaign of rumors, half truths, distortions, and flat out lies about Obama, liberals, and now Steele. Limbaugh's aim with Steele is to further cow the GOP into line; the 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 GOP. He resuscitated the old Bush line circa 2000, and talked about making the GOP a party of big tent diversity. Then like Bush he promptly forgot it.

That's exactly what Limbaugh with his conservative white man's litmus test for the GOP wants. But that flies in the face of what Obama's election triumph showed. That is that the country's fast changing ethnic vote demographics looks nothing like it did a decade ago. Black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American voters now make up nearly a quarter of the nation's electorate. College educated whites make up more than one-third of the vote. Limbaugh's comfort zone voter demographic; white blue collar, heartland and deep South voters have shrunk to less than forty percent of the nation's voters. Immigration, higher birth rates, and the youth trends will continue to swell the numbers of minority and youth voters. The white electorate overall will continue to decline.

It's not only the numbers that work against the GOP. It's also ideology. The Democrats' expanding core base of voters is more moderate, socially active, and pro government; the exact opposite of what Limbaugh rants for.

Obama, Emanuel, and Steele know this. The Democrats would not have won the White House and Steele would not have beat out a pack of mostly Limbaugh fawning contenders for the RNC top spot if that hadn't been true.

Still, Limbaugh has one powerful tool to bully, badger and cajole the GOP and saber rattle Obama. That's the airwaves. He'll exploit it to the hilt. But that won't make him the boss of the GOP let alone any real threat to Obama. It'll just make him an inviting and convenient strawman.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is How Obama Won (Middle Passage Press, January 2009).