Republicans who have turned to Rush Limbaugh to lead the fight against President Obama may have backed the wrong horse. According to one recent poll, Limbaugh turns out to be one of the most unpopular political figures in the country.
An October 24, 2008, poll conducted by the Democratic research firm Greenberg-Quinlan-Rosner has Rush Limbaugh enjoying a public-approval rating of just 21 percent among likely voters, while 58 percent have “cold” feelings toward the right-wing radio-talk-show host. Limbaugh’s cold rating was higher than that of all the political figures the firm polled. It was seven points higher than Rev. Jeremiah “God Damn America” Wright and eight points higher than former Weather Underground domestic terrorist William Ayers. (As the firm points out in an email, it’s true that Wright and Ayers both had lower “warm” ratings than Limbaugh—as you’d expect for men who have virtually no constituencies.)
Rush polls seven points lower than Rev. Jeremiah “God Damn America” Wright and eight points below former Weather Underground domestic terrorist William Ayers.
Limbaugh is so unpopular that only 44 percent of Republican voters reported “warm” feelings toward him, ten points less than those who felt the same way about Limbaugh’s top competitor, Fox News’ Sean Hannity, and a full 20 points lower than Fox News itself. Yet in spite of rock-bottom favorable numbers, Limbaugh confidently declared one week after Obama’s inauguration that his power far exceeded that of the Republican Party’s top two leaders in the Senate and House of Representatives. Obama, Limbaugh roared, is “obviously more frightened of me than he is Mitch McConnell. He's more frightened of me, than he is of, say, John Boehner, which doesn't say much about our party.”
Obama seems unfazed by El Rushbo. The president recently implored Republican leaders, “You can’t listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done.”
Despite Limbaugh’s low popularity ratings, congressional Republicans are so intimidated by his perceived influence that even the most resentful members shamelessly grovel at his feet. He might have alienated vast sectors of the Republican base, but Limbaugh still commands an army of self-proclaimed “Dittoheads” who represent the party’s most politically fervent, ideologically extreme, and easily shepherded element. This is a faction that flood the party’s elected representatives’ offices with phone calls, and which they believe they cannot afford to offend.
In 1994, one year after the National Review ran a cover proclaiming Limbaugh “The Leader of The Republican Party,” the “Dittoheads” helped propel the Republicans to a congressional majority. Hoping to stage another comeback against even greater odds, the Republicans maintain a strict code of masochism, bowing to Limbaugh even and especially when he casts them as his useful idiots.
Consider the case of Phil Gingrey, a Republican representative from a safely conservative district in Georgia. After Limbaugh mocked Boehner and McConnell, Gingrey decided to take his stand, blasting Limbaugh (and Hannity and Newt Gingrich) for “throwing bricks” without paying the consequences. “You know you’re just on these talk shows and you’re living well and plus you stir up a bit of controversy and gin the base and that sort of that thing,” Gingrey told a reporter on January 27. “But when it comes to true leadership, not that these people couldn’t be or wouldn’t be good leaders.”
What happened next provided a perfect example of Limbaugh’s dictatorial power. The next day, Gingrey, a former obstetrician, crawled on to The Rush Limbaugh Show to diagnose himself as suffering from foot-in-mouth disease. “I clearly ended up putting my foot in my mouth on some of those comments,” Gingrey pleaded, “and I just wanted to tell you, Rush—and all our conservative giants, who help us so much to maintain our base and grow it to get back this majority—that I regret those stupid comments.”
Another illuminating instance of Limbaugh’s hold over congressional GOP leaders arrived when he announced, on the day of Obama’s swearing-in, “I would be honored if the Drive-By Media headlined me all day long: ‘Limbaugh: I Hope Obama Fails.’ Somebody’s gotta say it.” Rep. Mike Pence, the former chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the nexus of right-wing House members, rushed to Limbaugh’s defense during an interview with MSNBC’s Norah O’Donnell.
“I certainly hope there will be strong opposition to Obama’s agenda from voices like Limbaugh…” Pence said. “I certainly understand what he was saying.” When O’Donnell read to Pence Limbaugh’s statement that Americans should not “bend over and grab their ankles” because Obama is the first black president, Pence intensified his apologia, flatly declaring, “I don’t believe Rush Limbaugh’s got a racist bone in his body.” (In 2003, Limbaugh was forced to resign as a commentator for NFL games on ESPN for on-air remarks about Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb: “The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well…he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve.”)
Pro-Obama progressive groups in Washington are exploiting Limbaugh’s resurgent power to assail lockstep Republican opposition to Obama’s stimulus package. Yesterday, Americans United for Change announced plans to expand on the “Rush to Failure” ads it is already running in the districts of vulnerable Republican senators. The ads declare, “Every Republican voted with Limbaugh, and against creating four million new American jobs.”
Democratic strategist James Carville reacted with glee when I interviewed him about Limbaugh’s re-emergence. “From a political standpoint it’s fine with me,” Carville told me. “I’m absolutely elated to acknowledge his primacy in the Republican Party.”
Limbaugh may not yet have precipitated his dream of Obama’s failure, but he has at least guaranteed the Republicans’ servility. In doing so, one of the most unpopular men in American politics has ensured that even amid the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, he is still, in the words of his new acolyte, Congressman Gingrey, “living well.”
Max Blumenthal is a senior writer for The Daily Beast and writing fellow at The Nation Institute, whose book, Republican Gomorrah (Basic/Nation Books), is forthcoming in Spring 2009. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.