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Peter Daou

Peter Daou

Posted March 3, 2009 | 08:24 AM (EST)

Why on Earth Are Democrats Legitimizing and Empowering Rush Limbaugh?


I don't buy into this 'brilliant' strategy of elevating Rush Limbaugh in the hopes that it will tarnish Republicans.

Focus relentlessly on the disastrous Bush presidency to tarnish Republicans, yes.

Overturn every single illegal and unconstitutional Bush-era policy and show the country and the world that we're reclaiming the moral high ground, yes.

Implement bold strategies and use soaring rhetoric to inspire Americans, yes.

Hew fiercely to Democratic principles, reassert the greatness of our American identity, demonstrate the true meaning of liberalism, of progressivism, providing opportunity, seeking justice and fairness, helping those in need, yes.

Spend our resources healing the sick, feeding the hungry, lifting the poor, cleaning the planet, rather than on war and more war, yes.

But expand Rush Limbaugh's profile and platform? No.

It's bad for the country and it's bad politics. Limbaugh and his cohorts (Coulter, Hannity, Beck, Savage, and so on), are largely responsible for our toxic political environment. Given major media platforms to launch crude and brutal political and cultural attacks, to demonize liberals, and to use rage as a means of lining their own pockets, these 'entertainers' have poisoned our national discourse.

There's precious little benefit in making Limbaugh more of a central player, in engaging him directly from the White House podium, in raising his stature, in stamping, sealing and approving the years he's spent bashing his political opponents. There was a moment, a brief moment, after Barack Obama was elected president, a moment long gone, where the likes of Limbaugh and Hannity could have become marginalized, bit players rather than media movers and shakers, the detritus of a sorry era. But instead, they have been granted more power -- out of some contrived political calculus. This, at a time when we don't need political calculus, we need single-minded determination to get us out of this economic calamity and to restore sanity to our government.

I know it's hard for Democrats to appreciate how quickly political fortunes turn -- the glow of victory, the high of electoral success gives a sense of inevitability and invincibility, of permanence. But there's nothing permanent about power. The tide will turn again, and the engine that will drive it is the fury stirred by the likes of Limbaugh. Feeding that machine, expanding and enhancing it is a mistake. A serious one.

It's a truism that victory makes every decision seem genius, defeat, the reverse. Democrats, now in power, have a sense of triumph that makes every decision feel smart, every chess move a checkmate. Thus the "Rush strategy" foisted on those of us who have spent the past decade trying to point out how noxious and pernicious Limbaugh and his ilk have been (and continue to be), and how detrimental the anger they've stoked.

Empowering Limbaugh in the hopes of a bank-shot against Republicans will yield the opposite result: Limbaugh will become more powerful, Republicans will relish his increased influence and allow him to do their dirty work.

It's easy to feel like the old era is gone, the old demons slain, that we WON, that nobody's afraid of the once-vaunted Republican attack machine. But Barack Obama's unquestioned discipline, steadfastness and intelligence notwithstanding, he wouldn't be president without a tsunami of Hillary-hatred expertly surfed by his campaign, mishandled by hers, a tsunami generated over the years precisely by people like Rush Limbaugh.

The myth of a technological, grassroots revolution, of prodigious strategic and tactical brilliance, of a do-no-wrong campaign, perhaps the greatest ever run, that myth sounds good, but it's not what happened. The reality was that the 2008 election was the age-old battle of character-building and character-destruction. Obama's team won that battle against Hillary Clinton not just because of Obama's abundant positive traits but because people like Rush Limbaugh gave him a 15-year head start against her. He won it against John McCain because McCain squandered years of character-building by enabling the excesses of George W. Bush and by running an erratic, unfocused campaign that served to highlight the best of Obama's character and the worst of his. Character versus character.

Democratic strategists, busy sparring with Rush Limbaugh, should keep that in mind. The seeds of Democratic defeat are planted not by Republican elected officials, who, like McCain, will carry the Bush albatross for years to come, but by those who can freely fan the flames of outrage, who can fight dirty, who can bend and break the rules with impunity, who can tear down their opponents' integrity and character, and whose apparent reward (as in the case of Ann Coulter) is to be given yet a larger platform.

No thanks.

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UPDATE: Lots of great feedback from Huffposters in the comments, so I wanted to add a few more thoughts:

1. There's been an ongoing debate for several years about whether or not to respond to provocations from Limbaugh, Coulter and others. I've always believed that the most effective response is to go after those in the media and the political establishment who give them a platform and who legitimize their radical words but not to engage them in a head-to-head (which gives them credence they don't deserve). So by no means am I advocating ignoring them, as some have interpreted from my post. In fact, if you look back at my blogging since 2003, many of my posts are specifically about the rightwing hate-mongers.

2. As I mentioned in a previous post - and should have repeated here - my point about the Obama campaign taking advantage of the right's attacks against Hillary Clinton is not meant as a critique or value judgment - it's a statement of fact. They used the environment to their advantage, as any successful campaign would. I worked my heart out for Obama after Hillary Clinton dropped out and cried when he won, holding my baby daughter on my shoulders as he gave his acceptance speech. Many of my good friends and former colleagues from the Kerry and Clinton campaigns work(ed) for him and as a dedicated progressive, having a Dem president as smart, steadfast, insightful and disciplined as Obama is a dream come true after the Bush years. [Plus he plays hoops, my obsession :)]

3. There are lessons to be learned from both the primaries and the general election and I reference them not to relive the past but as a guide to the present political reality. In that regard, I think Dems are too sanguine about their political standing. My point was to indicate that the results of '08 could easily have been different and that power and electoral success are ephemeral. I look at the situation with the view that power will invariably shift hands down the road and that the choices we make today can come back to haunt us later.

4. Finally, expanding my point in response to an email from a friend, I said:

The very fact that Obama won was enough (at least temporarily) to marginalize the hate-mongers like Limbaugh and Hannity. Maybe it was just me, but for a moment in November I felt that Limbaugh and Coulter and their ilk were suddenly passe, that the very fact of Obama's presidency would cement the slow and steady work that Media Matters, MoveOn, CAP and the netroots did to undermine them, that in Obama moving past them, he automatically weakened them.

Instead, Limbaugh is now more powerful than ever. And I don't see how that's a good thing politically. It doesn't matter that some Republicans don't like him, it's that everything he represents and all his imitators have needlessly been given new life - by us!

The idea that making him more powerful in the hopes that it somehow illustrates the weakness of GOP ideas is too Rube Golbergy for me. Why not just conceive and implement smart, good, Dem policy, use Bush as a constant reminder of Republican failures, and let the results speak for themselves?