Video: Rush vs. The White House

updated 3/2/2009 2:36:00 PM ET 2009-03-02T19:36:00

Congressional Republicans show no desire to demonize President Barack Obama, so they're condemning Democratic leaders instead. Democrats are finished with their favorite target, George W. Bush, so they're linking Republicans to a famous talk show host instead.

Call it deflection politics.

Listen to the No. 2 Republican leader in the House, Rep. Eric Cantor. "We want to work with this president," he said Sunday. "We want people to regain their confidence in Washington. And what people are looking for is results."

But what of the $787 billion economic recovery legislation that not a single Republican in the House supported? That, Cantor said, was "Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi's stimulus bill."

Now consider White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. "It's our desire that the Republicans would work with us and try to be constructive, rather than adopt the philosophy of somebody like Rush Limbaugh, who is praying for failure," he said.

Six weeks into Obama's presidency, both sides are trying to divine the terms for public debate. Obama and Republican lawmakers clearly understand two things: The president is popular; raw partisanship is not.

The Republican goal is to separate Obama from his policies and go after congressional Democrats, who fare much more poorly in public approval.

A convenient target
Obama, meanwhile, recognizes that part of his appeal is his outreach to Republicans, even if it's not intended to bear immediate fruit. As a result, the White House and its allies won't be too critical of Republican political leaders. Limbaugh, who has said he hopes Obama fails in his economic policies, makes a more attractive, and convenient, target.

This weekend, a labor-liberal coalition began airing about $100,000 in ads on national cable television and in Washington markets in an effort to handcuff the GOP to Limbaugh, whose provocations don't always follow party script.

"Rush Limbaugh is the leader of the Republican Party — he says jump and they say how high," said Brad Woodhouse, president of Americans United for Change, the liberal advocacy group that is sponsoring the ads with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Video: Has Obama declared war on conservatives? Limbaugh has refused to back down. Speaking Saturday to a conservative convention in Washington, he said: "What is so strange about being honest and saying, 'I want Barack Obama to fail if his mission is to restructure and reform this country so that capitalism and individual liberty are not its foundation? Why would I want that to succeed?'"

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The words have made some Republicans flinch. And on Sunday, Cantor seemed eager to change the subject. "Nobody — no Republican, no Democrat — wants this president to fail, nor do they want this country to fail or the economy to fail," he said on ABC's "This Week."

And Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, in an interview Saturday with CNN's D.L Hughley, rejected suggestions that Limbaugh is the "de facto" leader of the party.

"I'm the de facto leader of the Republican Party," Steele asserted. "Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer. Rush Limbaugh, his whole thing is entertainment. Yes, it's incendiary. Yes, it's ugly."

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, responding Monday to questions about Limbaugh, described the radio host as "somebody who seems to be, maybe for a lack of a better word, a national spokesperson for conservative views and the Republican Party." He added: "The best question, though, is for you to ask individual Republicans whether they agree with what Rush Limbaugh said they weekend. Do they want to see the president's economic agenda fail?"

RNC spokesman Alex Conant dismissed the Limbaugh connections as a Democratic effort to build "straw men to attack and distract."

Hate-the-policy, like-the-policy-maker strategy
Republicans, meanwhile, have drawn careful distinctions between Obama and the rest of the Democratic Party.

"Republicans want to be partners with the President in finding responsible solutions to the challenges facing our nation, but thus far congressional leaders in the president's own party have stood in the way," said Rep. John Boehner, the House Republican leader, after Obama's address to a joint session of Congress last week.

Conant on Monday said Americans "are growing skeptical of the massive government spending being pushed by congressional leaders like Nancy Pelosi." No word about Obama.

Eventually, it will become harder for Republicans to continue their hate-the-policy, like-the-policy-maker strategy. Obama's budget, with its sweeping calls for a restructured domestic policy, made clear that he was the Democrat driving the party's ideas. And while Republicans have flattered Obama and his call for fiscal restraint, Obama aides left no doubt he will sign the spending bill and not heed their call for a veto.

"We just need to move on," White House budget chief Peter Orszag said.

At the same time, the White House and its allies will be able to play the Limbaugh gambit only so long. After all, the talk radio master may have a big bullhorn, but it's Republicans such as Cantor and Boehner who are driving the Republican message in the Capitol hallways.

For now, though, Limbaugh and Pelosi will do.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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