Remember the Dixie Chicks? The liberal blogosphere does. When the country girl band from Texas said they were ashamed of President George W Bush, right-wing talkshow host Rush Limbaugh was among the patriots accusing them of disloyalty — while gleefully tarring all Bush’s domestic opponents with the same brush.
Now that Limbaugh has publicly declared he wants to see President Obama fail, the liberal movement has found its moment for revenge. Democrats now own the presidency, and by extension the nation. Now it is Limbaugh and the Republicans who are disloyal and unpatriotic. Limbaugh the controversialist is (of course) happy to be a martyr to his cause. The White House feigns disappointment, with Obama characterising Limbaugh’s 80-minute outburst last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference as just more jockeying for position.
Setting up Limbaugh as "the intellectual force and energy behind the Republican Party" however, as Rahm Emanuel did on CBS, is convenient for both Obama and for Limbaugh. It sets Limbaugh up as a straw man, and bayonets the Republican Party along with him.
For Obama it is smart wedge politics, fanning the flames of an internal war between hard-line and moderate conservatives in the Republican Party. Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee was humiliated by having to apologise to Limbaugh for criticising him on CNN, when he sought to marginalise Limbaugh by calling him "an entertainer", and not "the de-facto leader of the Republican Party".
For Limbaugh it means high ratings and more importance than an average radio talkshow host could hope for, as it will naturally reinforce his appearance as the champion of American conservatism.
Not so long ago the Obama election campaign had a lot to say about "raising the tone" of politics. Obama promised a new era of "bipartisanship" and "unity". This appealed to Independent voters and those who don’t think too hard about how democracy actually works. The vision of "one nation" united behind one leader and going forward together in one direction is not democracy, it is fascism — and is itself the ultimate expression of anti-party politics. Democracy as we know it is in essence the contest between sets of competing elites for the people’s vote on election day.
Ironically, what people want from their representatives is often not more debate or more rigorous contests, but leadership, unity and action. This is one explanation for the discrepancy between the high approval ratings of the President and the low approval ratings of the Congress. Both are Democratic, but it is Obama who is the symbol of leadership while the Congress squabbles and prevaricates.
Republican opposition in Congress to Obama’s economic stimulus plan was the inevitable "game over" for bipartisanship. Republicans faced the same dilemma that was faced by the conservative parties in Australia. Bipartisanship in a democracy actually means surrender, and for an opposition it means irrelevance, unless it is to be part of a national government. The latter of course, would mean the end of the competitive democracy we know.
As Obama’s supporters will discover (and as Obama no doubt already knows) "changing the tone" and "bipartisanship" are often the opposite of winning and getting things done. Only a mediocre president content with achieving little can be truly bipartisan. Obama has claimed that he "didn’t come here to do the same thing we’ve been doing or to take small steps forward". The realisation is rapidly building that bipartisanship and progress may be mutually incompatible.
Hardcore Republicans will not accept Obama’s promise of "change" or of a unified nation on his terms where such terms include anything mildly approaching a "universal" health care system or "nationalisation" of banks — and Obama supporters will be left with little alternative but to go back on the attack.
Going back on the attack however is precisely what the Obama machine is designed to do. The jockeying for position over Limbaugh needs to be seen within the context of Obama’s "permanent campaign" machine, particularly his 15-million-strong online supporter base.
In a lecture this week at Melbourne Univeristy, Obama’s internet campaign director Joe Trippi pointed out that Obama’s ability to mobilise and empower unprecedented numbers of citizens around his leadership made him potentially the most powerful president in history — not just against the Republicans, but against an obfuscating Congress.
With this in mind, the Limbaugh straw man could also provide a salutary lesson for some Democrats who may be preparing to differ with Obama on policy. Obama is already fighting the next election, and that requires an opposition against which to mobilise the people.
The Republicans will be the new enemies of the state and the nation, and the Obamaniacs the new patriots. This was, after all, the other vision in The Audacity of Hope that gets less attention: Obama’s goal in it was the building of a progressive movement that will turn the table on the Republicans by casting itself as the common sense, populist and patriotic — and even religious — guardian of the nation.
For the sake of appearances and the Independent vote, however, some pretense at bipartisanship was necessary. Obama cannot afford to be the one to break the dream of "one nation". For this, Limbaugh is the ideal figure. Limbaugh articulates the old and reactionary vision of the conservative Republican Party. More pointedly he does not play lip service to bipartisanship or play Obama’s games when he "reaches across the aisle". Other Republicans have cautiously accepted the hand, even if they have their fingers crossed behind their backs. Republican politicians stand to lose if they are cast as the agents of division and disloyalty.
Division and partisan controversy by contrast are what provide Limbaugh with his business as a talkshow host. Obama is looking for an excuse to unleash the new patriots, and Limbaugh’s de facto leadership of the Republicans would provide just that.
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