There’s been a great deal of debate recently over the heightened visibility of Rush Limbaugh, the GOP’s favorite l’enfant terrible, since the Republican Party has assumed the opposition role in Washington. In particular, much of the left has been positively joyous over Rush’s apparent ascension to, as Rahm Emanuel put it, the “intellectual force and energy behind the Republican Party.”
Naturally, the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress have been all too happy to bestow this titular honor on Mr. Limbaugh. A recent Politico article even links his re-emergence as a partisan icon to the work of political strategists Stanley Greenberg and James Carville, who have actively advised Democrats to draw rhetorical connections between Limbaugh’s controversial persona and Republican leadership. After a poll revealed the pundit to be even more divisive than Obama’s controversial former pastor Jeremiah Wright, Carville saw an opening: “It’s great for us, great for him, great for the press,” he said to Politico regarding Rush’s augmented visibility, “The only people he’s not good for are the actual Republicans in Congress.”
I’m not so sure.
Amidst all the uproarious laughter towards Rush and his assertion that “better policy ideas” will not beat Democrats, Jon Chait makes a very necessary point: what if Limbaugh’s celebrity maintains its height while the stock market maintains its lows? There’s no doubt the GOP of 2009 has become woefully irrelevant after a truly awesome eight years, but if markets continue their trends downward, 2010 and 2012 might be unexpectedly difficult times to sell 2-4 more years of Democratic economic policy.
I think it’s pretty clear that the Democratic comeback since  has had next-to-nothing to with developing ‘new ideas’ and almost everything to do with Republican failure, the state of the economy, and a really effective presidential nominee. [Y]es, Democratic ideas proved more popular, but they really were the same basic ideas the party had advocated for years.
Limbaugh, then, is narrowly right. The GOP’s fortunes are essentially an inverse function of the Obama administration’s fortunes, which is turn depends almost entirely on the state of the world economy.
As cynical as it sounds, I have to agree with Chait’s argument. While governing philosophy clearly influences voter opinion, a marginally reasoned alternative to a policy or politician perceived to be a failure is the source for most electoral successes. FDR emerged from Hoover; Reagan emerged from Carter; Obama emerged from Bush. I don’t question the political abilities of any of these men, but there’s little doubt their policies took shape as a direct repudiation of their predecessors’ shortcomings.
Thus, a problematic “what-if” appears. What if the economy continues to deteriorate and digs into Obama’s (admittedly still high) approval rating? The sad truth is that we could witness the illustrious party of Sarah Palin, Sean Hannity and plumbers with high school diplomas regaining power. With the notable exception of John Huntsman and Charlie Crist, this Republican Party has not seemed to absorb any lessons from November 4th, 2008. They have remained a broken record of strident anti-government, homophobic and anti-immigration talking points from their dusty culture war encyclopedia. As David Brooks recently put it, “The only thing more scary than Obama’s experiment is the thought that it might fail and the political power will swing over to a Republican Party that is currently unfit to wield it.”
If the economy reamins this bad, Rush and the gang may just get the chance.