The Limbaugh Chatter Goes Meta

By Dan Froomkin
4:25 PM ET, 03/ 5/2009

Dan Froomkin is off on Friday. The blog will resume on Monday.

The continuing media chatter about right-wing talk show giant Rush Limbaugh's inordinate influence over Republican Party officials is, undoubtedly, a distraction. There are much more important things for us to be talking about.

But now the chatter has gotten meta -- about who is responsible for the chatter in the first place. Is it the Republicans whose slavish devotion has recently gotten so bald that it's truly hard to ignore? Is it the media -- especially the cable hosts and the mainstream reporters who follow their lead?

Or could it be -- the White House?

A not particularly persuasive story yesterday by Jonathan Martin in Politico set off this latest storm. Martin wrote that the depiction of Limbaugh "as the new face of the Republican Party" was the result of "a full-scale effort first hatched by some of the most familiar names in politics" and was "now being guided in part from inside the White House."

Time's Michael Scherer dutifully took the story and ran with it, extrapolating that Obama -- who during the campaign railed against distractions raised by opponent John McCain, and who of late has taken to condemning the shallowness of the "cable chatter" -- was now being as bad as those he criticized.

"At a time of unprecedented threats to the United States, a time of financial collapse, bank failures and record layoffs, at a time when the credit crisis has not been solved, and the stock market is in free fall, at a time of stagnating wars, rising terrorism in Pakistan and growing nuclear potential in Iran, the White House has done the easy thing," Scherer wrote. "It has asked the American people to focus their attention not on solving the problems, but on a big-mouthed entertainer in Florida. This may be smart politics. But it is also the same petty strategy that John McCain employed during the presidential campaign, the one that our new president promised to rise above."

Except it's just not true. Even if you credit the White House for considerably more involvement in the Limbaugh matter than has been proven, the overwhelming preponderance of its energy has been going into trying to engage the public on the most serious issues imaginable.

And even if the White House put out a little bait, it was the media that chose to take it. And not stop talking about it.

Greg Sargent at Whorunsgov.com goes back to the story in Politico and notices: "The piece explicitly says that groups outside the White House -- the DCCC, the Center for American Progress, and the labor-backed Americans United for Change -- were the first to push the strategy."

This morning, House minority leader John Boehner took up the cudgel on the Washington Post op-ed page, writing that "in a carefully calculated campaign, operatives and allies of the Obama administration are seeking to divert attention toward radio host Rush Limbaugh, and away from a debate about our alternative solutions on the economy and the irresponsible spending binge they are presiding over....

"Moments like this demand the kind of cooperation and new way of doing business that Obama has promised. Instead, those around him are taking to the airwaves and the pages of our nation's newspapers to carry out a campaign intended to change the subject and divert attention from what matters most: finding a way to work together to get our economy moving again."

But as Steve Benen blogs for Washington Monthly: "I don't think Boehner fully appreciates the point of 'diversionary tactics.' As the Minority Leader sees it, Democrats don't want to talk about their economic policies, so they're talking about Limbaugh.

"But here's the follow-up question: why would Democrats be reluctant to talk about their economic policies? Americans like the Democrats' economic policies."

Ben Armbruster of Thinkprogress watches the White House conspiracy theory taking root on Fox News.

And while David von Drehle writes for Time that it was a monumental act of hubris for Gibbs to equate Limbaugh's "I hope Obama fails" with "wishing and hoping for economic failure in this country," I think the distinction is not that great at this point.

Obama's fortune is inextricably linked with the nation's economy. As Obama acknowledged -- with surprising candor -- to an audience in Fort Myers, Fla., early last month: "If it turns out that a few years from now people don't feel like the economy's turned around, that we're still having problems, that folks are still unemployed, that our health care system's not more efficient, then, you know...I mean, I expect to be judged by results. And -- and there's no -- you know, I'm not going to make any excuses. If stuff hasn't worked and people don't feel like I've led the country in the right direction, then you'll have a new president."

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