By Zev Chafets
HERE are many theories for why very conservative Republicans seem to be doing so well lately, taking their party’s Senate nominations in Florida, Kentucky and Utah, and beating Democrats head-to-head in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Virginia. Some attribute this to a generalized anti-incumbent mood. Others say it reflects the tendency of parties in power to falter in midterm elections. Recently it has been fashionable to ascribe right-wing success to the Tea Party movement.
But the most obvious explanation is the one that’s been conspicuously absent from the gusher of analysis. Republican success in 2010 can be boiled down to two words: Rush Limbaugh.
Mr. Limbaugh has played an important role in elections going back to 1994, when he commanded the air war in the Republican Congressional victory. This time, however, he is more than simply the mouthpiece of the party. He is the brains and the spirit behind its resurgence.
How did this happen? The Obama victory in 2008 left Republicans dazed, demoralized and leaderless. Less than six weeks after the inauguration, in a nationally televised keynote address to the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, Mr. Limbaugh stepped into the void with a raucous denunciation of the new president’s agenda and a strategic plan based on his belief that real conservatism wins every time. He reiterated his famous call for Mr. Obama to fail and urged the party faithful to ignore the siren song of bipartisanship and moderation and stay true to the principles of Ronald Reagan.
Democrats responded by branding Mr. Limbaugh — whom they considered self-evidently unattractive — as the leader of the opposition. The day after the conservative conference, Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, went on “Face the Nation” and described Mr. Limbaugh as the “voice and the intellectual force and energy” of the G.O.P.
Mr. Limbaugh loved being tossed into this briar patch. He mocked the notion that he was the titular leader of the Republicans even as he was becoming the party’s top strategist and de facto boss.
His strategy was simple. With Democrats controlling Congress, Mr. Limbaugh saw that there was no way to stop the president’s agenda. He dismissed the moderates’ notion that compromising with the president would make Republicans look good to independents. Instead he decreed that the Republicans must become the party of no, and force Democratic candidates — especially centrists — to go into 2010 with sole responsibility for the Obama program and the state of the economy. And that is what has happened.
Mr. Limbaugh was not just the architect of this plan, he was (and continues to be) its enforcer. Dissenters like Arlen Specter, whom Mr. Limbaugh disparaged as a “Republican in Name Only,” found themselves unelectable in the party primaries. Moderates like Michael Steele, the party chairman, were slapped down for suggesting cooperation with the administration. When Representative Phil Gingrey of Georgia had the temerity to suggest that Mr. Limbaugh was too uncompromising, he was met with public outrage and forced into an humiliating apology.
When the Tea Party movement emerged, Mr. Limbaugh welcomed it. The movement’s causes — fighting against health care reform, reducing the size and cost of government, opposing the Democrats’ putative desire to remake America in the image of European social democracies — were straight Limbaughism. A very high proportion of the Tea Partiers listen to Mr. Limbaugh. Sarah Palin’s biggest current applause line — Republicans are not just the party of no, but the party of hell no — came courtesy of Mr. Limbaugh. (Ms. Palin gave the keynote address at the first national Tea Party convention.) Glenn Beck, who is especially popular among Tea Partiers, calls Mr. Limbaugh his hero.
So why the lack of attention? Mr. Limbaugh has studiously refrained from claiming credit for the movement. His only intervention thus far has been to quash talk about the Tea Party becoming a third party. He wants a unified, right-wing G.O.P. in 2010, and by all appearances he is going to get it.
Rush Limbaugh came along after the age of Ronald Reagan. He has never really had a Republican presidential candidate to his ideological satisfaction. But if the party sweeps this November under the banner of Real Conservatism, Mr. Obama will find himself facing two years of “no” in Washington and, very likely, a Limbaugh-approved opponent in 2012.
Zev Chafets is the author of the forthcoming “Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One.”