The great mystery is still why President Barack Obama would whiplash obstructionist GOP congresspersons with Rush Limbaugh. A guy who a big majority of Americans don't like and who rates lower than any other political figure. That was the finding of the Greenberg-Quinlan-Rosner poll taken back in late October. The poll released by a Democratic leaning polling firm may well be politically partisan and tainted, and Limbaugh and company loudly screamed that it was. But he is America's long time great polarizing talk show gabber, and it's a role he relishes.
Yet Obama still made him his straw man to demand that the GOP reps and senators get on board his legislative train to pass the economic stimulus package and any other legislation he and the Democratic controlled Congress want passed.
Using Limbaugh as a foil was a big mistake. This writer warned that Limbaugh would use Obama's taunt to further sell-inflate his importance as a public opinion and political kingmaker. Unfortunately, Obama's perverse hype of Limbaugh didn't end there. GOP senators and congresspersons dutifully kissed the talk bloviator's ring and swore not to say or do anything to frontally offend him. Former Republican National Committee chair Rich Bond was one of the few party men to dare warn against the GOP's grovel to Limbaugh. Bond bluntly asked whether there would be an all-white man litmus test for the GOP. Bond's bulls eye challenge to the GOP to stop paying homage to Limbaugh or risk an even bigger free fall will likely fall on deaf ears. The ascension of Michael Steele as the RNC's first African-American chief won't do much to change that for now either.
The brutal reality is that a narrow majority of GOP voters believe the party should think like Sarah Palin and be even more noisy and brutish in hectoring the GOP conciliators. Obama and the media's puff of Limbaugh, his rabid sprawling on-air following, and his ruthless and relentless self-promotion machine virtually insure that Bond's worst fear of a white man's litmus test for the party will hold.
Take Limbaugh's listening audience. It's overwhelmingly white, male and hard core conservative. That was and still is the GOP's bread and butter constituency. They vote, are outspoken on issues, bully and badger party moderates and dissenters, and when fully aroused can inflame millions of voters around the emotional wedge issues; abortion, family values, anti-gay marriage and rights, and tax cuts. GOP presidents and aspiring presidents, Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr. and W. Bush, and McCain and legions of GOP governors, senators and congresspersons banked on these voters for victory and to seize and maintain regional and national political dominance. The strategy was simple; say and do as little as possible about civil rights, talk God, country and patriotism, use racially tinged code words and furiously court white males. The strategy worked like a political charm for four decades.
Limbaugh knows that and is never shy about saber rattling the GOP and at times he can still pack a mean political wallop against GOP apostates. When Georgia rep Phil Gentry had the temerity to accuse Limbaugh of taking holier than thou cheap shots at GOP congresspersons, Limbaugh quickly whipped up the talk show pack against him. Gentry got the message to button it up, and he did. Limbaugh is not presumptuous enough to take full credit for pumping steel in the back of GOP congresspersons to oppose much of the Obama economic stimulus bill, branding it another "pet liberal project." But he's come close.
Limbaugh's finger in the dike last stand and hike in radio popularity ratings can't change one fact. The GOP is an insular party of Deep South and narrow Heartland, rural and, non-college educated blue collar whites. That's not a demographic to be totally sneered at, because the numbers are still huge. But the number of voters who don't fit that demographic are even bigger and are fast changing.
In the past decade the number of black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American voters has leaped to nearly one quarter of the nation's electorate. At the same time, blue collar white voters shrunk from more than half of the nation's voters to less than forty percent. Obama handily won the Hispanic and Asian vote and crushed Republican rival John McCain with the black vote. In the next four years, the number of non-white and youth voters will continue to climb and the white electorate overall will drop even more.
No matter, Limbaugh has milked the Obama bash for all it's worth and at least for the moment has managed to cower a big chunk of the GOP into keeping the party the kind of party he likes. And he'll keep using a white man's litmus test to do it.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is How Obama Won (Middle Passage Press, January 2009).