Question For Media: Is Rush Limbaugh Conservative Movement’s “Unofficial Leader?”


To: Interested Parties
From: Jessica Levin, Media Matters for America
Re: Question For Media: Is Rush Limbaugh Conservative Movement’s “Unofficial Leader?”
Date: Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Rush Limbaugh rose to prominence in the early 1990s through a relentless series of smears leveled at President Clinton, his administration, and his family. With a progressive back in the White House, Limbaugh has returned to regular attacks on the president. The Los Angeles Times described him as “the politically wounded party’s unofficial leader” and his keynote speech at this weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) was broadcast live on Fox News and CNN and then rebroadcast on Fox News the next day – a treatment that, according to Fox News’ Greg Jarrett, “not even the president” gets.

Limbaugh started a media firestorm with his comments in January — just days before President Barack Obama’s inauguration — that he “hopes” Obama “fails.” Since then Limbaugh has continued his drumbeat repeating this theme, recently asserting that it is not only him but “every Republican in this country” who “wants Obama to fail.”

Among top conservatives, reaction to Limbaugh’s sentiment has been mixed. Former Rep. Tom DeLay and former Sen. Rick Santorum have publicly agreed with Limbaugh’s sentiment while some conservative figures have distanced themselves the conservative commentator. RNC Chairman Michael Steele recently joined Rep. Phil Gingrey in the list of conservative leaders who have bowed down to Limbaugh after publicly criticizing him.

With Republican at a crossroads on whether Limbaugh speaks for the party, it might be best, as White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in yesterday’s briefing “to ask individual Republicans whether they agree with what Rush Limbaugh said this weekend.” Media Matters today launched “Limbaugh Wire,” a resource center for all of the latest research on the top-rated radio talk show host:


Below are some of Limbaugh’s attacks on President Obama and his policies since the inauguration as well as conservative commentary on Limbaugh’s rhetoric:

Limbaugh’s “I Hope He Fails” Mantra Against President Obama

During the broadcast of his January 16 show, in response to the invitation of “a major American print publication” to describe his “hope for the Obama administration,” Limbaugh replied “I hope he fails.” Limbaugh has continued to pound this theme on his show, not only saying that he wants “the stimulus package” to fail but that “every Republican in the country wants Obama to fail.”

A Limbaugh Fissure Within Conservative Movement?

Since President Obama’s inauguration, there has been a wide range of reactions from conservative officials and media figures to Limbaugh’s rhetoric.

Conservatives in Congress such as Rep. Eric Cantor and other prominent leaders such as Republican strategist Mike Murphy have distanced themselves from Limbaugh.

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor

  • Responding to George Stephanopolous’ question whether “the Rush Limbaugh approach of hoping the president fails” is “the Eric Cantor House Republican approach,” Cantor replied “absolutely not.” [Media Matters‘ County Fair, 3/1/09]

South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford

  • Gov. Sanford, when about the “view that perhaps Republicans are rooting for President Obama to fail,” replied: “I don’t want him to fail. Anybody who wants him to fail is an idiot, because it means we’re all in trouble.” [Center for American Progress’ Think Progress, 2/25/09]

GOP Strategist Mike Murphy

  • Mike Murphy disagreed with Limbaugh saying “Republicans want the country to succeed,” and warned against a “party of 25 percent of the vote going to Limbaugh rallies.” [Media Matters‘ County Fair, 3/1/09]

While other conservative leaders and personalities such as Tom DeLay and Rick Santorum have echoed Limbaugh’s comments.

Former House Minority Leader Tom DeLay

  • When asked if he agreed with Rush Limbaugh that we shouldn’t hope for President Obama to succeed, DeLay replied “Well, exactly right. I don’t want this for our nation. That’s for sure.” [Center for American Progress’ Think Progress, 2/27/09]

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum

  • Similarly, when asked “do you hope, should we hope that President Obama fails,” Santorum replied that “absolutely we hope that his policies fail,” adding “I believe his policies will fail, I don’t know, but I hope they fail.” [Center for American Progress’ Think Progress, 2/28/09]

RNC chairman Michael Steele and Rep. Phil Gingrey actually backed down from their respective criticisms of Limbaugh.

RNC chairman Michael Steele

  • RNC Chairman Michael Steele originally said “Rush Limbaugh, his whole thing is entertainment. Yes it’s incendiary, yes it’s ugly.” [Politico, 3/2/09]
  • After Limbaugh addressed those comments on his radio show, asserting that Steele that he is “head of the RNC” and not “head of the Republican Party,” Steele soon was backing down on his comments. Steele said his “intent was not to go after Rush” and that “[t]here was no attempt on my part to diminish is voice or his leadership.” Steele further claimed that what he was trying to say was that “a lot of people…want to make Rush the scapegoat, the bogeyman, and he’s not.” [Politico, 3/2/09]

Rep. Phil Gingrey

  • Responding to Limbaugh’s assertion that Obama is “obviously more frightened of me than he is Mitch McConnell” and “John Boehner,” Rep. Gingrey said “I mean, it’s easy if you’re Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh or even sometimes Newt Gingrich to stand back and throw bricks.” Gingrey continued: “You know you’re just on these talk shows and you’re living well and plus you stir up a bit of controversy and gin up the base and that sort of thing.” [Politico, 1/27/09]
  • Gingrey appeared on Limbaugh’s show the following day to express his “very sincere regret for those comments” and said “I clearly ended up putting my foot in my mouth on some of those comments.” [Center for American Progress’ Think Progress, 1/28/09]

Limbaugh’s Influence on Conservative Echo Chamber: Health IT falsehoods and Other Attacks on Obama’s Policies

As evidence of Limbaugh’s influence among both conservative and mainstream media, he was the first to unabashedly advance former New York Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey’s falsehood that a provision in the House-passed version of the economic recovery bill grants the government authority to “monitor treatments” and “make sure your doctor is doing what the federal government deems appropriate.” This dubious claim was soon being parroted by several conservative media figures. Limbaugh took credit, saying “I found it. I detailed it for you and now it’s all over the mainstream media.”

Media Matters has documented Limbaugh leading the conservative echo chamber in advancing other false and misleading information about President Obama’s economic proposals.

Media Matters for America