Politics & Policy

Behold the Power of Irrelevance

Mission accomplished.

Irrelevance is sweet. Sweetest, perhaps — ironically — for John McCain.

It was only a few months ago that California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared talk-radio king Rush Limbaugh “irrelevant.”

David Brooks announced that “Limbaugh, Grover Norquist and James Dobson have influence, but they are not arbiters of conservative doctrine.”

The Washington Post reported in January:

From Rush Limbaugh to Tom DeLay, voices that once held sway over the Republican rank and file unloaded on John McCain over the last week, trying to use a conservative electorate in South Carolina to derail the Arizona senator’s quest for the Republican nomination. But though McCain failed to persuade many of the old Republican power brokers, he wrapped up the Republican establishment where it counted most, South Carolina. . . . Limbaugh led the way with a verbal blitz, not just against McCain but against his closest rival in South Carolina, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. “I’m here to tell you, if either of these two guys get the nomination, it’s going to destroy the Republican Party. It’s going to change it forever, be the end of it,” Limbaugh fumed on his radio show Tuesday. It was a line of argument that he kept up all week long.

But on Tuesday, in the Indiana and North Carolina primaries, two things happened which should have Ahnuld, Brooks, the Washington Post newsroom, and the McCain campaign — for the senator’s sake — tuning into The Rush Limbaugh Show today and for the rest of the 2008 election:

First: Limbaugh’s “Operation Chaos” — which has encouraged Republicans to vote for Clinton in open-primary states — may have reached its zenith. As pundits and junkies stayed up deep into primary night, with a tieless Dan Abrams grooving to background jazz on MSNBC, and others wondering if there was funny business afoot with the delayed results from Gary, Indiana — despite the fact that Obama and Clinton were both satisfied that Hillary had a narrow lead in the Hoosier state — Hillary won, even as her staff were prepping their resumes.

The beginning of the end for the woman who would be the first Madam President, coming as late as it did — the Pennsylvania primary is not supposed to be a pivotal event! — can almost certainly be chalked up to the hardly irrelevant Operation Chaos. No less than the Obama campaign acknowledged Limbaugh’s role. OpChaos was about divide and conquer. Create chaos on the Left. Weaken the Democratic nominee.

And so it has.

At the end of it all — which is about where we are now — it worked: The protracted Democratic battle helped welcome Jeremiah Wright back to the podium. Even Obama’s relationship with terrorist Bill Ayers got a little more airtime (with more to come). There were actual debates. The bloom came off the Barackstar rose. Obama has been wounded in a way that McCain would never have done and that his fans in the media would probably not have permitted if Hillary hadn’t stayed in the race.

But Limbaugh didn’t need last night — he had already declared victory on Tuesday’s show:

This is the crucible of chaos. Look at what Operation Chaos has forged. Mrs. Clinton now is threatening to obliterate Iran. She says she’s gonna break up OPEC. She wants to hold the money brokers responsible for the alleged recession. She says she gonna renege on NAFTA. She’ll take what she calls the excess profits from Big Oil. And she’s going to do all that while hunting and downing shots of Crown Royal followed by a beer. None of that, not one of these Clinton promises would exist were it not for Operation Chaos. The train would not have come off the tracks of the Obama campaign, were it not for Operation Chaos. The Jeremiah Wright stuff and all that, yes, that would have happened, but [nobody] could have done anything about it because Mrs. Clinton would have been effectively out of the race, not able to mount a campaign. So we’d be in a far different spot today than we were so the purpose of this is to keep this going — exactly what’s happened.

And not only do we have chaos in the Democrat ticket and the Democrat race; we’ve got chaos in the Drive-By Media. Chaos has sprung up all over this campaign. That was the objective, and I need to issue a sincere thanks to all of you commandos, volunteers, and operatives for one hell of a job. I know how hard this has been for those of you to go out there and follow orders and actually vote for a Clinton. You have had to trust me that I know what I’m doing here and that that will not end up harming you or us, and I appreciate this trust that you have invested in me, your commander-in-chief.

Rush was right. Voting for Hillary to extend the Democratic primary was a brilliant strategic move. And, as Sean Hannity might put it, the “Stop Hillary Express” was eventually going to leave the station, anyway. Why not make an impact as it made its way to primarys end?

There was a second important component to Tuesday’s primaries: In North Carolina, 26 percent of Republicans voted against John McCain; 22 percent voted against him in Indiana. Behold the power of talk radio, John McCain, which could help deliver a Republican victory this year, in spite of party perils and the GOP candidate’s frequent alienation from his base.

As a conservative who is skeptical of the Arizona senator — and who was reminded that McCain cannot always be relied on during the senator’s speech on judges at Wake Forest University — said to me this morning: It’s possible that “OpChaos has provided the only plausible rationale for voting Republican this year.” And as a legitimate arbiter or at least leading interpreter of conservative doctrine, Limbaugh sleeps at night knowing he’s not being a party guy. He’s trying to save the Republican party from itself, while standing athwart those who would allow it to be reshaped in the image of John McCain.

Rush’s problems with McCain reflect legitimate conservative concerns: John McCain has a nagging habit of reminding conservatives that he is not one of them and doesn’t want to be — whether the topic is global warming or Jeremiah Wright or announcing that social issues don’t interest him. The protest votes Tuesday — going to Mike Huckabee, Ron Paul, and Mitt Romney — can probably be partly attributed to John McCain’s protest of a North Carolina GOP ad hitting Barack Obama for his association with Jeremiah Wright. The consensus among conservative talk-radio callers and editorialists was: Wright is legitimate fodder for the Right, and McCain was ridiculous to chastise his fellow Republicans for the commercial.

And so now, as Hillary Clinton scrambles to figure out just how long she can prolong this, with or without Rush’s continued help, John McCain begins to focus on one opponent. And if he does so without an appreciation for the power of Rush Limbaugh, talk radio, and the conservative movement, he does so at his peril. Depending on which poll you look at, the general election looks tight. Even with a wounded Obama, this is not McCain’s election to lose. Cash-strapped, 71, and ideologically uninspiring, McCain is going to have to rally his base. There are ways to do this.

Limbaugh, in fact, has offered advice: Talk about American exceptionalism. The approach promises to be damning to a Democratic nominee whose wife has only become proud of America because her husband is now a presidential candidate. It’s doable for a war hero who has a son enlisted and another at the Naval Academy. Play it, straight, Senator. There is a common enemy that conservatives want to help you to defeat. Don’t blow it by sticking it to your allies.


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