At the top of the list of things I didn't expect to hear this year was Rush Limbaugh saying "thank you."
As part of my book, Wingnuts, which dissects how hyper-partisanship and increased influence of the lunatic fringe have led to Washington's dysfunction, I traced the start of the legislative stalemate crippling Obama's agenda to Limbaugh's now infamous statement, "I hope he fails."
It was a criticism. Rush took it as a compliment.
That's exactly what's wrong in America right now.
Click Below to Watch Limbaugh Talk About John Avlon
Here's what he and I can agree on. In the patriotic pre-inaugural enthusiasm, President-elect Obama was enjoying approval ratings approaching 70 percent. He had followed through on his promise to appoint a Team of Rivals-style cabinet in an effort to show what a postpartisan presidency could look like. He'd won the election with the support of not just 90 percent of liberals and 60 percent of centrists but 20 percent of conservatives. The country seemed briefly united.
When a news organization asked a group of notable Americans to pen a few hundred words on their hopes for the incoming Obama administration, Rush replied that he needed only four words—"I hope he fails." Little did we know at that time, Rush's call to outright obstructionism would inspire the GOP's wilderness campaign. Legislative debates became cast as part of an all-or-nothing struggle between freedom and National Socialism, with filibusters threatened on a regular basis and paralyzing party-line votes the norm. When Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) said he hoped health care would be Obama's "Waterloo," he was echoing Rush.
Of course, Rush and the Republican Party cannot be solely blamed for the hyper-partisan culture of dysfunction in Washington. Bush Derangement Syndrome on the left preceded Obama Derangement Syndrome on the right. During the first 100 days, Nancy Pelosi's liberal House leadership pursued their own play-to-the-base approach to the stimulus bill, undercutting President Obama's postpartisan promises and added credibility to absolutists' call to arms.
Wingnuts confuse patriotism with partisanship. They see politics as ideological warfare, not problem-solving. And they believe they are carrying on a great American tradition in this regard. They're wrong.
Fifty years ago, John F. Kennedy beat Richard Nixon by an 118,574-vote margin in a bitterly contested election. Here's what the committed conservative and American icon John Wayne had to say at the time: "I didn't vote for him, but he's my president, and I hope he does a good job."
"I hope he fails"—which he reinforced while giving me his back-handed shout-out Friday—is a fall from that patriotic 20th-century perspective. It is a sign of our degraded civic discourse, where honest disagreements can't be debated using reason. It's also a sign of another troubling trend: hyper-partisan talk radio hosts giving talking points to party leadership instead of vice versa. A few months after Glenn Beck declared "Our country might not survive Barack Obama," the Republican National Congressional Committee fired off a fundraising letter saying "America cannot survive on this new course."
The problem is that the narrow-but-intense niche-building strategy of a polarizing political entertainer is the opposite of the broad coalition-building strategy that political parties are supposed to employ. It's a matter of division versus addition.
Rush Limbaugh is a partisan leader without the responsibility of governing. Pumping up conflict, tension, and resentment might be good for ratings, but it's bad for the country.
John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.