Friday, February 15, 2008


Rush Limbaugh is interviewed in today's New York Times, and there's an odd, momentarily baffling Limbaugh bit quoted early in the story:

"I would like today to announce a tentative decision -- I'm still thinking about it -- to endorse Barack Obama," he said....

Mr. Limbaugh then listed nearly a dozen qualities he said he found admirable in Mr. Obama. "Barack Obama is pro-life," he began. "Barack Obama is a tax-cutter extraordinaire."


If neither statement was descriptive of Mr. Obama, a liberal Democrat, nor was there much hope for what followed. "Barack Obama will establish a college football playoff, once and for all," Mr. Limbaugh said. "Barack Obama will offer free-beer Fridays."

His point, Mr. Limbaugh said, was that Mr. Obama represented "a blank canvas upon which anyone can project their fantasies and desires."

Oh. OK, I get it now. But there's something off here. The point seems strained -- and Limbaugh's tone, especially in an accompanying audio clip, seems wistful.

In the clip, Limbaugh's riff goes on longer -- and you start realizing that Limbaugh isn't mocking Obama so much as describing his own crisis of faith, as his appeal to the heavens (or, rather, to Republican headquarters) for the healing touch of God goes unanswered this year (or so Limbaugh keeps telling us):

Barack Obama is pro-life. Barack Obama is a constitutionalist. Barack Obama believes in limited government. Barack Obama is in favor of health-care savings plans. Barack Obama loves free markets and wants to protect them. Barack Obama is strong on national defense. Barack Obama is a tax-cutter extraordinaire.

This isn't a riff. This is a prayer, or at least a bitter mockery of a prayer. The subtext is: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?


Republicans and Clintonites alike have concluded that they can really hurt Obama by attacking him as a self-styled Messiah. In the general election, at least, I don't think it can work -- by now, Americans are too accustomed to thinking of top political leaders as embodiments of Good and Godliness and smiters of Evil, and no one's done more in the past thirty years or so to keep that way of looking at politics alive than the GOP.

Ronald Reagan rose from the dead after being shot, then was literally the Bringer of Dawn after presiding over the end of his own recession and conquering a tiny island nation. Via his Lady of the Lake, Peggy Noonan, Reagan passed his magic sword to George H.W. Bush, who won the election but was never truly divine -- but at just about this time, Limbaugh himself arose, with (as he put it) "talent on loan from God." Newt Gingrich had ten commandments on his Contract with America tablets. And 9/11 made George W. Bush God's president.

America fell for every bit of this nonsense, at least for a while, so if voters think Obama is the Messiah, and Obama is leading McCain in the polls, that's just the GOP being hoist on its own petard. (John McCain actually did spend years in a living hell, and why Limbaugh and his ideological soul mates aren't playing that up just to keep the Democrats out of the White House is still a mystery.) It's the GOP that's told us for years that American politics is the struggle between Pure Good and Pure Evil; it's Republicans' tough luck if Democrats now believe it.

Except that Democrats might not believe it. I'm reading that Hillary Clinton is doing quite well in polls in Texas and Ohio and Wisconsin; maybe the "Messiah" thing is starting to hurt Obama. Democrats don't usually nominate godlike figures -- far from it. Gore? Kerry? Dukakis? Mondale? Not very godlike. Yes, Bill Clinton did enter Madison Square Garden before his '92 convention speech after a short Christ-like procession, and was then seen on film shaking hands with God in the person of JFK -- and he won. But that happened months after he'd already won the Democratic nomination. And yes, subsequently, in time for the '98 midterms, Clinton became like a horny god from the Greco-Roman tradition. But these are exceptions. More often, Democratic voters have been skeptical of Messiahs and dragon-slayers.

That could be Hillary Clinton's opening. Maybe, for better or worse, Democrats will return to their usual preference for the wonky and pragmatic.

And meanwhile, Rush Limbaugh will still be wandering in the desert, waiting for a sign.

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