Rush Limbaugh Wins as Election's Biggest Manipulator

With Democratic enthusiasm waxing, Republican energy waning, and more than four out of five voters convinced the country is now on the wrong track, one would think hard-right-wing talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh would be near-suicidal.

But no! As it stands, Limbaugh -- now in his 20th year as the universally acknowledged "Grand Poobah" of talk radio, with an estimated weekly audience of about 13.5 million listeners -- looks to be the biggest winner thus far in the ongoing presidential primary sweepstakes.

From attacking Republican front runner John McCain early in the process to "dreaming" of -- and some say illegally calling for -- riots at August's Democratic National Convention in Denver, all the way to more recent efforts such as "Operation Chaos," aimed at inserting himself and his followers into the Democratic primaries in an attempt to weaken Barack Obama by supporting Hillary Clinton, the so-called "Limbaugh effect" has garnered excessive attention from the 'drive-by' mainstream media that Limbaugh purports to hate but actually depends on and manipulates adroitly. Although the real-world effect of "Operation Chaos" is doubtful -- at least in terms of influencing the Democratic primaries -- it has clearly been wildly successful in its real mission of promoting Limbaugh and his nationally syndicated radio program.

Front page coverage in the Washington Post, cover treatment from Time magazine, prominent placement on ABC News, a glowing feature article on the influential site -- the examples of Limbaugh's clever salesmanship are everywhere. As Politico's Jonathan Martin put it, "Limbaugh's skills as a political provocateur, as much P.T. Barnum as conservative ideologue, are such that he can fuel buzz in the political-media world like few others. In other words, Operation Chaos was good box office, and that may well have been the point."

Well, of course it was the point! Limbaugh himself admitted it in an email exchange with Martin, wherein he wrote, "In my universe, there is no doubt it worked like a charm. My audience loved it, they participated in it, they had fun with it, as did I."

Limbaugh's clever politico-media manipulation was aided and abetted by Democratic operatives and supporters of Obama for obviously partisan reasons -- despite ample evidence that there was as much bluster as basis for the claims that right-wingers had crossed over in droves to support Clinton in Texas and Ohio contests and more recently in Indiana. (For example, David Axelrod, Obama's top strategist, repeatedly assured reporters that he attributed Clinton's victory in Indiana to "Operation Chaos.") Although it is unsurprising that Obama's flacks spent a lot of time and effort noting and promoting the so-called "Limbaugh effect," Obama supporter and onetime presidential wannabe John Kerry really should have known better than to claim Clinton only won Indiana as a result of Limbaugh's intervention.

Limbaugh's play is so transparent as to be laughable -- yet the increasingly pathetic mainstream media is either unwilling or unable to resist his efforts to reinject himself into the ongoing "news narrative" and "media conversation," in part because they covet his audience and hope to bask in the reflection of his prominence. Limbaugh himself is unabashed, asking, "How many of the MSM hope I will mention something they said or wrote? Many of these outlets are losing circulation, ad revenue and audience. I am not. So, they love me mentioning them so that people know they exist."

Limbaugh is right -- and I have come with great reluctance (but also great evidence) to expect little more than pandering on the part of Big Media, particularly at its crucial intersection with Big Politics. And talk radio -- a once-moribund format that in the past two decades has risen from the ashes to become "literally, the talk of the nation -- second only to country music in the number of stations that carry it" -- is undeniably politically powerful. Its total audience is now nearly 50 million listeners, according to the Arbitron ratings service. Moreover, its actual influence vastly outweighs even those numbers. As Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine, an industry trade journal, recently noted, the bottom line is that "talk radio is where the voters are."

But in their unending quest to reach those voters, leading Democrats such as Kerry, Axelrod (and, by extension, Barack Obama), who are playing along with Rush, may soon find they are playing with fire -- and as the late political pundit Bob Marley once eloquently phrased it, "Catch a fire -- you're gonna get burned."

For one thing, bolstering claims that the largely nonexistent "Limbaugh effect" is actually playing a crucial role in the Democratic nominating process means that Limbaugh will continue to hold his fire against John McCain, as he tries the delicate dance of consolidating support from the Republican base while still striving to attract moderate and independent voters. For another, it means granting further legitimacy and power to El Rushbo, an out-and-out avowed enemy who will then spend the next eight years doing everything he can to foil the Democrats' -- and democratic -- process. Perhaps that is part of the "post-partisan" political future the Obama camp envisions -- or maybe it's just politics as usual?

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