Is radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh the true leader of the loyal opposition in Washington now? He's the only significant conservative to declare that he wants an Obama administration failure. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
So, just days before the inauguration, conservative talk show titan Rush Limbaugh responded on-air to a media inquiry over what his "hope" was for the Obama administration. Rush chose not to take the politically "expected" response:
If I wanted Obama to succeed, I'd be happy the Republicans have laid down. And I would be encouraging Republicans to lay down and support him. Look, what he's talking about is the absorption of as much of the private sector by the US government as possible, from the banking business, to the mortgage industry, the automobile business, to health care. I do not want the government in charge of all of these things. I don't want this to work. So I'm thinking of replying to the guy, "Okay, I'll send you a response, but I don't need 400 words, I need four: I hope he fails."
So, Rush ain't singing Kumbayah with official Washington. He's chosen where his battle line is and will go on to fight it.
Should anyone truly be surprised at this? Rush Limbaugh is not an elected official. He doesn't have the "responsibility" of being a member of Congress and thus a "leader" who is required to cooperate with the new president. Limbaugh has a self-contained constituency -- his weekly audience of at least 14 million (Limbaugh claims 20 million). With Howard Stern having decamped to satellite radio a few years ago, Limbaugh is the unchallenged King of Terrestrial Radio. Those listeners flock to his show to hear stuff that isn't said on regular media.
Besides, he's been there before: After Bill Clinton's 1992 election, Limbaugh went into overdrive, essentially declared war on the new Democratic administration (and Democratic congressional majority). Between Limbaugh's hectoring on the outside and an energized Republican minority on the inside (plus several self-inflicted wounds), both the Clinton administration and the congressional Democrats imploded. Result: Republicans captured Congress in 1994 -- and Limbaugh released a second #1 best-selling book, See I Told You So.
Of course, there are significant differences between 1993 and today. Bill Clinton came into office with reverse coattails: Democrats lost seats in the '92 election. Conservatism as a governing principle was at its high point; the Republican Party was on a roll.. Limbaugh was the leading edge of a force that would sweep the country in 1994.
That's different from today: Obama won states that Democrats hadn't been competitive in in decades; he increased Democrats in both the House and the Senate. The public seems to want greater government control in a host of private sector industries.
But, until the ratings tell him something different, Limbaugh's audience hasn't changed. And he won't either.
Limbaugh isn't praying for failure of such a level that the nation would be materially harmed by Obama policies -- though he fairly believes that liberalism has been a bad philosophy. He doesn't want the country to continue its apparent leftward drift -- and neither do his listeners. In that sense, they want Obama to "fail."
But they should realize that a president can lose major policy initiatives and still have a successful presidency. Look no further than the aforementioned Clinton administration: Health-care, which dominated headlines and administration energy for most of 1993 and 1994 collapsed. In short, Clinton failed -- and the election of a Republican Congress was the greatest evidence of that failure.
Yet, ironically, losing Congress allowed Clinton to pivot and bounce back to such a degree that he was able to win re-election in 1996 and, despite impeachment in 1998, leave office in 2000 as a very popular president. The Clinton years, oddly, turned out to be a "success" for all concerned -- Clinton, congressional Republicans, conservatives and, yes, especially, Rush Limbaugh.
So, Limbaugh is being himself in hoping that Obama fails -- just as the coach of one team can't hope that the opposing team "succeeds." But, as the Clinton precedent shows, there are many ways that a president can avoid failure -- whether every policy becomes the law of the land or not.
Robert A. George is a New York writer who blogs at Ragged Thots and dabbles in stand up comedy.