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11.06.10

How Obama Enables Rush

President Obama lowered taxes. Why doesn't the country know that? Rick Perlstein on how Rush Limbaugh helped mislead a nation—and why the Democrats let him get away with it.

We live in a mendocracy.

As in: rule by liars.

Political scientists are going crazy crunching the numbers to uncover the skeleton key to understanding the Republican victory last Tuesday.

But the only number that matters is the one demonstrating that by a two-to-one margin likely voters thought their taxes had gone up, when, for almost all of them, they had actually gone down. Republican politicians, and conservative commentators, told them Barack Obama was a tax-mad lunatic. They lied. The mainstream media did not do their job and correct them. The White House was too polite—"civil," just like Obama promised—to say much. So people believed the lie. From this all else follows.

And it was all too predictable.

Consider February 24, 2009, when, after four glowing weeks in office, Obama delivered his first, triumphant, address to a joint session of Congress. Two weeks earlier, he had signed the $700 billion stimulus bill. This was his speech defending it.

That was the one in which Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, looking like a cross between a deer in the headlights and a 10-year-old delivering a prize school report, delivered the Republican response. You remember! He singled out for excoriation the $140 million in stimulus spending "for something called 'volcano monitoring'"; this happened to be about a month before a volcano erupted, releasing a 60,000 foot cloud of ash near—dot dot dot—Wasilla, Alaska.

On CNN, David Brooks followed Jindal. He called the governor's "stale, government-is-the problem" rhetoric "a disaster for the Republican Party," and excoriated those who insisted on hugging tight to it as "insane." The people appeared to agree. In a snap poll, 92 percent of those surveyed had a positive reaction to Obama's speech—68 percent a very positive reaction. Only 8 percent had a negative reaction.

The next morning I tuned in to Rush Limbaugh. I was fascinated to see how the hell he might respond.

Like a deer in the headlights? Not quite. The first caller, though a self-professed ditto-head, took objection to Rush's argument that Obama had revealed himself in the speech as a tax-and-spend liberal. The caller quoted Obama's words: "Because of this plan, 95 percent of the working households in America will receive a tax cut—a tax cut that you will see in your paychecks beginning on April 1." (Which was true: People did.)

Rush responded, fluidly and without a gram of doubt. "Pay no attention to what Obama says. He means the opposite in most cases. What he says is irrelevant."

So the guy to whom all Republicans must kowtow on pain of political death had just laid down a marker that everything Obama said was a lie.

What if the White House had in those months in early 2009 put in the rhetorical forefront a story about Rush's tens of millions of listeners, and all politicians who refused to denounce Rush, were effectively saying anything the Chief Constitutional Officer of the United States said was a priori a diabolical lie?

But Obama didn't. That would be the "old politics of division." Not Obama's bag.

This would have been one of many opportunities to wedge the opposition between the authoritarian nihilists and the "constructive" Republicans who had America's best interests at heart. Instead, the nihilists got to tell the story that endures in the day-after punditry from last Tuesday: that the electorate "rejected Obama's agenda."

The vector worked, and works, like this:

(a) A mountebank teaches his millions of followers that everything the president says is a priori a lie;

b) The mainstream media that acts as if anything his millions of followers believe is a priori deserving of respect as heartland folk wisdom (note the cover article lionizing Limbaugh in this week's Newsweek);

(c) The president unilaterally renders himself constitutionally incapable of breaking the chain between (a) and (b), such that, (d), the assumption that Obama raised taxes when he really lowered them becomes hegemonic for a majority of the electorate, and even a large plurality of Democrats.

Q.E.D.: Governing has become impossible.

When one side breaks the social contract, and the other side makes a virtue of never calling them out on it, the liar always wins.

When one side breaks the social contract, and the other side makes a virtue of never calling them out on it, the liar always wins. When it becomes "uncivil" to call out liars, lying becomes free.

Mark McKinnon: To Hell with the Press And dammit, the essence of Obamaism as an ideology is that it is Uncivil to Call Out Liars.

So you find him at a press conference, the day after the midterm elections, saying with all apparent sincerity that he agreed the majority of Americans participated in a "fundamental rejection of his agenda"—who, that is, implicitly believe he raised their taxes.

When he really lowered them.

Rick Perlstein is the author, most recently, of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and The Fracturing of America.