Rush Limbaugh: The Bull in the GOP's China Shop

By hoping to see Obama fail, Limbaugh stokes controversy within the GOP—to the delight of Democrats.

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Rush Limbaugh is front and center in the political world again today, with friends and foes debating how much he speaks for the Republican Party.

The drama over the conservative radio-show host took another interesting turn when Michael Steele, the new chairman of the Republican National Committee, backed away from criticisms of Limbaugh that had gotten major media attention for both of them.

Steele originally told CNN last weekend that Limbaugh's radio show was "incendiary" and "ugly," and that Limbaugh was a mere "entertainer" and not a genuine conservative leader.

After Steele's original criticism made news, a miffed Limbaugh told his millions of radio listeners that Steele was off base and that the party chairman seemed "obsessed with seeing to it that President Obama succeeds." Limbaugh added that the GOP has descended into a "sad-sack state."

Steele then thought better of his comments and said he was misinterpreted. Last night, Steele issued this statement: "To the extent that my remarks helped the Democrats in Washington to take the focus, even for one minute, off of their irresponsible expansion of government, I truly apologize." Steele insisted that he respects Limbaugh and called him "a national conservative leader."

This prompted Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, to stir the pot even more, issuing a statement to the media that noted, "Chairman Steele's reversal this evening and his apology to Limbaugh proves the unfortunate point that Limbaugh is the leading force behind the Republican Party, its politics, and its obstruction of President Obama's agenda in Washington."

In another statement this morning, Kaine blasted Limbaugh for saying he hopes Obama will fail as president because his policies are too liberal. Democratic leaders, including White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, are increasingly trying to portray the conservative firebrand as the voice of the GOP. Democratic strategists say this is based on the theory that while Limbaugh is popular on the right, he is too extreme for many independents and swing voters.

As for Steele, he appeared to try to blunt Limbaugh's criticism of him for being too visible and not quietly emphasizing the rebuilding of the GOP. "As you know," Steele said in a statement to potential GOP donors that was also released to the media last night, "my mission as the new chairman of the Republican National Committee is to rebuild our party from the grass-roots up—using new technology to spread our conservative message and remind voters that our party is the one and only true party of the people."

He went on to solicit funds to support the recount effort of Republican Norm Coleman in the Minnesota Senate race. Coleman lags behind Democratic challenger Al Franken by 225 votes in a legal fight over the outcome of the November election.

The whole fuss indicates deep disarray in the GOP. With no incumbent president, the party has many voices clamoring to speak for it, so conflicts are inevitable. And there are signs that Steele's problems are just beginning. A week ago, the new chairman told U.S. News that one of his objectives as chairman was to work with other GOP leaders to make sure the party promotes a consistent message in Congress, in statehouses, and at the RNC. But his dustup with Limbaugh suggests that this goal will be harder to achieve than he thought.