Rush Limbaugh: Republican Party Leader?

Want a formula for a diverting political tempest? CBS News senior political correspondent Jeff Greenfield breaks down the steps:

Step 1: Take a provocative speech by the most popular conservative voice in the land - that would be Rush Limbaugh, who asked, "What is so strange about being honest and saying, 'I want Barack Obama to fail?'" at last week's Conservative Political Action Conference.

Step 2: Add an observation by the White House chief of staff that has the subtlety of a hand grenade - Rahm Emanuel saying that Rush Limbaugh is the leader of the Republican Party.

Step 3: Throw in a comment by chairman of the Republican National Committee, the newly-elected former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who said Limbaugh is only an entertainer and that some of his remarks are "incendiary." Follow that up with a hat-in-hands apology from Steele to Limbaugh.

Step 4: Then, well, just stand back and watch the mixture come to a boil on cable news.

Republicans charge the White House with unleashing a "weapon of mass distraction." Democrats, including the party's national chair, counter that the Republicans are cowed by a commentator who is wishing the nation ill.

"When Rush made the statement of, 'Look, I want the president to fail,' that was just a very important thing to point out right there," said Tim Kaine, the Virginia governor and Democratic National Committee chairman. "We're gonna shine a spotlight on that. We're gonna ask the American people, 'Is this the way you want your politics to be?'"

So what's going on here? At root, this issue (or argument or sideshow) is a tangled mix of arguments about what was said, who said it, and when it was said.

It is also the latest example of an old political tactic: trying to define the other party by its most polarizing figure.

In an ordinary time, what Limbaugh said would have been completely conventional. Why would a dyed-in-the-wool conservative want a Democrat with an ambitious agenda to succeed? For that matter, did Democrats want President Bush to succeed in cutting taxes for the well-to-do, or changing Social Security?

But nobody wanted Bush to fail in the days after September 11th. And today, in the midst of a global economic crisis, "failure" can imply that very hard times will befall the country - a point that ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich made this weekend.

"I don't think anyone should want the president of the United States to fail," he said. "I want some of his policies to be stopped. But I don't want the president of the United States to fail."

That, according to Limbaugh's defenders, is exactly what he was trying to say.

"Rush wants Barack Obama to fail in implementing his agenda," said Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative National Review. "And he thinks that is what's good for the country. That is a perfectly respectable point of view. That's what the opposition usually believes."

But for some conservatives, Limbaugh appeals to the converted, while appalling those in the middle.

One poll shows why Democrats may relish the idea of Limbaugh as the face of the GOP. By a 27-46 margin, Americans view him unfavorably. And this would hardly be the first time a political party has tried to attach an unpopular face to the other team.

For decades, Republicans tried to identify Democrats with Jane Fonda, Jesse Jackson, even with a city.

"The San Francisco Democrats," Jeanne Kirkpatrick said at the 1984 convention, "always want to blame America first."

In 1996, Democrats tried to make then-Speaker Newt Gingrich the running mate of Bob Dole.

This time around, it's a tactic, says one of Limbaugh's least favorite Republicans, that could backfire.

"They made a tactical, political mistake," said Arlen Specter, the moderate Republican senator from Pennsylvania. "If you fight with the White House and the White House fights with you, you must be a pretty big guy."

But for most Republicans, the notion of Limbaugh as leader is an idea whose time has decidedly not come. What Republicans need, says one veteran strategist, is not a new face or voice, but a set of ideas.

"The next election's not going to be about Rush Limbaugh. That only happens in James Carville's dreams," said strategist Michael Murphy. "Next election is going to be about who's better for the middle class: big spending Democrats, or free enterprise Republicans? And we Republicans have a lot of work to do to be able to make that case now, and win."

And if the Republicans are looking for a leader, a new poll suggests how daunting that search may be. Sixty-eight percent of Republicans say the party has no leader. As for Rush Limbaugh - he gets the nod from just 2 percent of Republicans.