Rush Limbaugh, the prominent conservative radio-talk-show host and national entertainer, has challenged President Barack Obama to a debate. Not so fast. Before the president takes time out of his busy schedule to debate Limbaugh or any other critic mouthing off, the GOP leadership needs to decide who speaks for the Republican Party.
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel's recent observation that "Rush is the leader of the GOP" certainly seems to have struck a raw nerve. Rahm's comment was extremely timely. It got the national media buzzing and the Republicans bogged down in nonsense and infighting, with their supposed leaders ever-so-gently tiptoeing around Limbaugh's ego in order to whisper their assurances to the world that the big mouth (compliment Rush) is not their de-facto leader. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party watched the circus from the sidelines, using the ensuing spectacle to raise millions of dollars from people who agree with Emanuel.
As this two-ring circus unfolds further between Limbaugh and the GOP, Democrats should remain seated and silent, safe in the bleachers. Why fire your gun again when the first shot caused your opponents to form a circular firing squad?
For now, let the Republicans hash out in public who speaks for their party and the appropriate role for Limbaugh and others trying to fill the GOP's leadership void. As delicious as it may be to see whispering elephants scurrying around an angry 800-pound gorilla they raised from infancy and obscurity, Democrats need to stay away from such silliness and focus on helping the president save the country from the effects of eight years of Republican rule. Trust me when I say that despite the Democratic victory last fall, voters are more interested in seeing our national leaders come together and end the era of hyper-partisanship.
I know it's tempting, especially when the Republican National Committee chairman has to backtrack and publicly beg Limbaugh for forgiveness. Michael Steele, the newly elected GOP chairman from Maryland, publicly declared Limbaugh's nationally syndicated radio show for what it is — "ugly" and "incendiary" — and, perhaps worse, described its host for what he is — "an entertainer."
Immediately, Limbaugh lit up his "dittohead" base of supporters by issuing this ugly and incendiary response on his radio show: "I would be embarrassed to say that I'm in charge of the Republican Party in the sad-sack state that it's in."
Steele should have held his ground and called on Limbaugh to debate him immediately. After all, it was Steele who was chosen to lead the RNC after a heated party election in January. Rush, however, made it clear that Steele only speaks for the sad-sack party — not all Republicans and not the movement. "Michael Steele," Limbaugh declared on-air, "you are head of the RNC. You are not head of the Republican Party. Tens of millions of conservatives and Republicans have nothing to do with the RNC, and right now they want nothing to do with it, and when you call them asking them for money, they hang up on you."
After caving in and assuring Limbaugh that he is one heck of a terrific guy, Steele is trying to quickly change the subject. Having been rebuked by Rush and many of his state party leaders, the dynamic and charismatic (and might I add hip and too honest for his own good) chairman retreated to his RNC headquarters to attend to the Herculean task of trying to rebuild the GOP from the bottom up by helping congressional Republicans prepare for special elections and next year's important congressional and statewide races.
For now, it seems as though Rush feels compelled to continue debating his friends in the conservative movement and his "frenemies" in the Republican congressional leadership whether indeed he is the leader best prepared to help the opposition party out of the political wilderness.
Here's my question: Do they too, as Limbaugh has repeatedly said, want to see our president fail?
From my perspective, Limbaugh is the de-facto leader of the opposition as defined by his willingness to go public, pick a fight, rally the faithful and use his precious airtime to articulate alternative views and, well, I was going to write "solutions," but there are no conservative solutions being offered anywhere, are there?
Well, there you have it. Rush the entertainer is now Rush the leader of the loyal opposition — and he's not beholden to anyone but his millions of minions.
Naturally, this entire hoopla is feeding Limbaugh's already oversized ego. Mark my words, folks. Limbaugh will soon actually start to believe that, during this great moment of national crisis, he is indeed the one to lead the nation out of its morass. Run for RNC chairman? Nah, that's small potatoes for a man of Limbaugh's status. It wouldn't surprise me one little bit if he tosses his hat in the ring for 2012.
I can see it now. Limbaugh sprinting past a team of contenders, leaving behind, in a cloud of ditto-dust, former governors Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, and sitting governors Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Sarah Palin of Alaska, Mark Sanford of South Carolina, Haley Barbour of Mississippi or Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota.
Imagine it! Limbaugh campaigning for the White House, raising millions overnight from his loyal fan base, building a political network from scratch, and transforming himself from gadfly to national statesman. Talk about an entertainer! That alone would entertain millions of people — if it weren't so frightening.
Meanwhile, I'm going to do what I've advised my party leaders to do. I'm going to munch my popcorn and watch from the bleachers as the circus elephants stampede one another, wondering just how long the battle will last and who might emerge victorious from the center ring. Who said politics was boring? If it weren't for the country teetering on the brink of disaster, this circus would indeed be the greatest show on Earth.
Donna Brazile is a political commentator on CNN, ABC and NPR; contributing columnist to Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill; and former campaign manager for Al Gore.