x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Turning the dial all the way right

Neither Democrats or Republicans are in any rush to hush Rush Limbaugh, the talk radio host who claims to be the "conscience" of the conservative movement in the United States.

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, right, talks with conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh in the East Room of the White House in Washington.
Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, right, talks with conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh in the East Room of the White House in Washington.

NEW YORK // It seems neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are in any rush to hush Rush Limbaugh, the talk radio host who claims to be the "conscience" of the conservative movement in the United States. Democratic leaders are painting Limbaugh as the de facto leader of the Republicans, many of whom are wary of offending the popular host, who holds tremendous sway over a large swathe of their constituents.

Limbaugh has often been slammed for racism, sexism or just plain bad taste. He reignited controversy last weekend when he repeated his desire to see Barack Obama "fail", particularly in the president's efforts to boost the economy through a mixture of bailouts and deficit spending. "What is so strange about being honest and saying 'I want Barack Obama to fail if his mission is to restructure and reform this country so that capitalism and individual liberty are not its foundation?' Why would I want that to succeed?" he told a conservative convention.

The Democrats jumped on his remarks, seemingly eager to permanently twin the Republican Party with Limbaugh, who is viewed as a crank, if not a dangerous influence by Democrats and by those Republicans who believe the party has to capture the mainstream to win electoral eligibility. The Democrats' tactics were likened to "Chicago politics" by Chris Matthews, a host on the MSNBC cable television network, referring to a rough-and-tumble style that seeks to crush opponents by, among other means, embracing them and elevating them to an untenable position.

Robert Gibbs, Mr Obama's press secretary, on Monday described Mr Limbaugh as "somebody who seems to be, maybe for a lack of a better word, a national spokesman for conservative views and many in the Republican Party". Rahm Emanuel, Mr Obama's chief of staff and notorious for his use of salty language, called Limbaugh "the voice and the intellectual force and energy behind the Republican Party". "And whenever a Republican criticises him, they have to run back and apologise to him and say they were misunderstood," said Mr Emanuel, describing a scenario that then unfolded.

Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, initially went on the attack against Limbaugh. "I'm the de facto leader of the Republican Party," he told CNN. "Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer. Rush Limbaugh, his whole thing is entertainment. Yes, it's incendiary. Yes, it's ugly." Limbaugh counter-attacked during his Monday afternoon show. "I would be embarrassed to say that I'm in charge of the Republican Party in the sad-sack state that it's in. If I were chairman of the Republican Party, given the state that it's in, I would quit."

Mr Steele later apologised, saying in an interview with Politico, a Washington-centric website, he meant no "offence" and that perhaps he had been "inarticulate" in calling Limbaugh "incendiary". The apology echoed one in January from Phil Gingrey, a House Republican from Georgia, after telling Limbaugh to "back off" in his criticism of the party. Commentators wondered if Mr Steele was worried that Limbaugh's displeasure could provoke a drop in donations to the party. More than 14 million people listen each week to the radio host, who was reported to have signed a contract last year with Clear Channel Communications paying him $38 million (Dh140m) a year until 2016.

It was unclear how far the political back-and-forth would influence potential Republican voters, particularly on a day when the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped to below 6,800, the lowest since 1997. While Mr Obama's huge spending plans leave many US residents feeling uncomfortable, his personal standing remains high in opinion polls amid an unrelenting flood of disastrous economic indicators.

The president's oft-stated desire for a bipartisan approach to tackling big problems has found widespread approval and left the Republicans struggling to find the right tone in opposing his policies while appearing constructive at the same time. Limbaugh's renewed prominence came as the Republicans sought fresh political leadership. High hopes were focused on Bobby Jindal, the Louisiana governor, but he became the subject of comedians' jokes and bloggers after a widely panned speech on national television last week in which he attacked Mr Obama's stimulus package.

Mr Jindal can at least take heart from Limbaugh, who praised the red-blooded capitalist tone of his speech if not the flat delivery. sdevi@thenational.ae