Limbaugh Versus RNC's Michael Steele: Rush Strikes Back

Round two of the Republican Party leadership struggle.

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

First RNC Chairman Michael Steele took a shot at Rush Limbaugh over the weekend. Now Limbaugh has fired back, saying that he wouldn't want to be in charge of the GOP anyway.

Atlantic's Chris Good unpacks the politics and implications of both Steele's distancing from Limbaugh and also House Republican Whip Eric Cantor's.

In case you missed it: Saturday night actor-turned CNN reporter D.L. Hughley interviewed Steele on his television show. When Hughley pressed Steele about Limbaugh's stated desire that Barack Obama fail, the RNC chairman said: "So let's put it into context here. Let's put it into context here. Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer. Rush Limbaugh, his whole thing is entertainment. Yes, it's incendiary. Yes, it's ugly."

(A couple of side notes here: First, no one seems to have picked up on the irony that Steele denounced Limbaugh as an entertainer to an ... entertainer who happens to be employed as a reporter; second Steele said that he, rather than Limbaugh, is "the de facto leader of the Republican Party." Actually, Steele is the de jure leader of the party—Limbaugh may well be the de facto leader.)

Sunday, as Good points out, Cantor more directly moved away from Limbaugh: "Nobody—no Republican, no Democrat—wants this president to fail, nor do they want this country to fail or the economy to fail."

Good:

While Cantor and Steele both attacked the rhetoric, there are big differences between their political situations: Cantor, as a prominent leader in the House GOP, has to work with Obama; Steele, as the party's top political officer, has to generate campaign cash, balance the interests of the GOP's base—much of which, evidently, strongly agrees with Limbaugh—all the while asserting himself as political top dog in the GOP against claims that Limbaugh is the party's de facto leader.

Steele has put forth a vision for a more inclusive GOP—not necessarily inclusive to the idea of working with Democrats, but inclusive to new voting demographics—and "incindiary" rhetoric like Limbaugh's may seem to threaten his chance at bringing in new votes. Then again, nothing generates campaign donations like passionate support, and nothing generates passionate support like "incindiary" opposition to Democrats.

He forgets the third side of this triangle. Limbaugh. Cantor must balance politics and pragmatism; Steele must balance the base with the needs to expand the parties; but while Limbaugh may be de facto leader of the GOP, he is not of the GOP: His most pressing obligation is to the sponsors of his radio show, specifically to keep ratings high. He doesn't need to try to expand the GOP, merely to maintain his own listenership. In a sense, Limbaugh is better off with the Republicans out of power—it's easier to rant and rave while in de jure opposition than when in de facto support of an administration.

And especially with a conservative base—which naturally prefers to see itself as battling an evil establishment—it's easier, more fun (and more profitable) for him to pick a fight with the establishment, whether it's full of liberals or more narrowly full of weak-kneed Republicans.

Per TPM:

Limbaugh positively lambasted Steele on his radio show today, even seeming to suggest that the new RNC chairman should resign in shame: "I'm not in charge of the Republican Party, and I don't want to be. I would be embarrassed to say that I'm in charge of the Republican Party in a 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."

In any case, Josh Marshall is probably correct: It's only a matter of time before Steele is on the Limbaugh airwaves making nice with the conservative godfather.

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