In GOP Spat, Steele Tries To Take On Limbaugh

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Michael Steele may be the chairman of the Republican Party, but radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh remains the GOP's most public face. A simmering spat between the two went public this week, culminating in an apology from Steele.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

These are trying time for the Republican Party. President Obama's election, Democratic control of Congress and now, in exile, a power struggle between Michael Steele, the new Republican Party Chairman and Rush Limbaugh, the volcano of conservative talk radio. On cable TV and in the blogosphere, the big question about and among conservatives is who's in charge? NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA: If leaders are known for their ability to deliver straight talk then Rush Limbaugh certainly delivers big time - take his speech to a big gathering of mostly young conservatives in Washington this weekend. He repeated what he said on his own show, that he wants President Obama to fail and wondered why anyone would see that as controversial.

Mr. RUSH LIMBAUGH (Conservative Radio Talk Show Host): That's nothing more than common sense and then to not be able to say it. Why in the world do I want what we just described, rampant government growth indebtedness that has - wealth that's not even being created yet, is being spent. What is in this? What possibly is in this that any of us want to succeed?

GONYEA: Enter RNC Chair Michael Steele, elected to his job just a month ago. He was asked on CNN, the same night, about all the talk that Limbaugh is the de facto Republican leader. Steele disagreed, saying he is the de facto leader of the Republican Party. Then came this, less than charitable assessment of Limbaugh:

Mr. MICHAEL STEELE (Chairman of the Republican National Committee): Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer. Russ Limbaugh - his whole thing is entertainment. Yes, it's incendiary. Yes, it's ugly.

GONYEA: In case you couldn't make it out there in the cross talks, Steele said the Limbaugh radio show is incendiary and ugly. The radio host was not pleased and let his audience know yesterday on his show - wondering why Steele isn't the one laying out why Obama needs to fail.

Mr. LIMBAUGH: Where are your guts?

GONYEA: Limbaugh goes on.

Mr. LIMBAUGH: I'm not in charge of the Republican Party and I don't want to be. I would be embarrassed to say that I'm in charge of the Republican Party in a sad sack state that it's in. If I was Chairman of the Republican Party, given the state that it's in, I would quit.

GONYEA: Then just hours later came an apology from Steele. He said in a statement, he respects Limbaugh and said his remarks wrongly took the focus from Democrats and they are quote "irresponsible expansion of government". Score one for Limbaugh - except that the spectators enjoying the bout the most are Democrats - thrilled to see Limbaugh as the modern day face of the party. Here's how White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel put it on CBS's "Face the Nation," Sunday.

Mr. RAHM EMANUEL, (Chief of Staff, White House): He has asked for President Obama and called for President Obama to fail. That's his view and that's what he has enunciated. And whenever a Republican criticizes him, they have to run back and apologize to him, and say they were misunderstood.

GONYEA: And that was before Michael Steele issued his apology. Republican pollster Whit Ayres says it's no surprise Limbaugh gets so much attention.

Mr. WHIT AYRES (Republican Pollster): He has a very large microphone.

GONYEA: But a microphone through which Ayres says Limbaugh speaks mostly to the most conservative Republicans, his natural base - while Michael Steele's job is to broaden party support and win elections.

Mr. Ayres: He needs to figure out how to keep the talk radio Republicans energized while simultaneously reaching out to people who are not part of the Republican base, or are part of the Republican base but aren't considered talk radio Republicans. That's a challenge.

GONYEA: Especially since so many of those talk radio Republicans are Limbaugh fans and nobody talks to Rush fans like Rush.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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Steele-Limbaugh Spat: A Battle For GOP's Future?

In the four-plus weeks since he was elected chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele has attempted a blunter and hipper — some may say a hip-hop — vernacular to breathe vigor into the demoralized GOP.

The party's first African-American chairman told The Washington Times of his plan to lay out an "off the hook" public relations blitz targeting young Latinos and African-Americans in "hip-hop settings."

He appeared on radio to denounce President Obama's budget as containing a lot of "bling bling" and used a podcast to pronounce himself ready to hold a "rap off" with late night comedian Stephen Colbert.

But it was Steele's candor over the weekend about conservative radio talker Rush Limbaugh that has riveted the right flank of a party in search of a leader.

Taking On Limbaugh

"Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer," Steele said during an interview Saturday night with CNN's D.L. Hughley. He then referred to the right-wing hero's popular radio talk show as "incendiary" and "ugly."

And when Hughley referred to Limbaugh as the "de facto leader of the Republican Party," a narrative that gleeful Democrats have been promoting for weeks, Steele bristled.

"No he's not," he said. "I'm the de facto leader of the Republican Party."

During his program Monday, Limbaugh, who used a nearly 1 1/2-hour speech before conservative activists in Washington Saturday to assert that Republicans should want Obama to fail, blasted back.

"Michael Steele — you are head of the RNC; you are not head of the Republican Party," said Limbaugh, who also said that "something happened" to Steele.

"He got airtime on this program," Limbaugh said. "Now I'm just an 'entertainer,' and now I'm 'ugly' and my program is 'incendiary.' "

Steele told Politico Monday that he called after Limbaugh's show to let the radio host know he had meant no offense.

"I went back at that tape and I realized words that I said weren't what I was thinking," Steele said. "It was one of those things where I thinking I was saying one thing, and it came out differently. What I was trying to say was a lot of people ... want to make Rush the scapegoat, the bogeyman, and he's not."

Steele's comments prompted Gov. Tim Kaine, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, to issue a statement that characterized Steele's "reversal" as proof that "Limbaugh is the leading force behind the Republican Party, its politics, and its obstruction of President Obama's agenda in Washington."

A Spat With Broader Purpose?

So, will Steele's squabble with Limbaugh — if it even rises to that level — hurt or help him in the nascent days of his chairmanship?

"All this says is that there's a party that has lost two elections and is struggling to find its way out of the wilderness," says Republican pollster Whit Ayres. "There are always going to be some battles."

And Ayres was among a number of GOP leaders who said that Steele is, indeed, the leader of the party. And to expand the ranks of Republicans he need not kowtow to conservative icon Limbaugh.

Says GOP strategist Brad Blakeman: "Chairman Steele is trying to get his sea legs, to show he's a different type of Republican leader."

"Steele is making clear that Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer and, to use a Bushism, a 'philosophiser.' "

After two disastrous election cycles, it is incumbent on Steele, a former Maryland lieutenant governor, to broaden the party's appeal, Blakeman says. And that means bringing into the fold younger people, people of color and moderates who aren't Limbaugh acolytes.

"Steele has to do a tap dance between distancing himself from Rush and also encouraging Rush to get out information about the party," he said.

Blakeman and Ayres pushed back against Limbaugh's assertion that Steele is not the party's leader.

"It's perfectly appropriate for the national committee chairman to assert he is the head of the party, rather than someone who has never held elective office," Ayres said.

"It's in Rush's interest," Ayres said, "to keep a controversy going."

Solid Support For Steele

Outside the beltway bubble and in states where party leaders are counting on Steele to help them rebuild, support for the chairman remained strong.

"I haven't heard a single person in Colorado complain about Michael Steele — they're really energized about him because of what he brings to the party," said Mark Hillman, an RNC member from Colorado.

"He is as articulate as any chairman we've had in a while," Hillman said. "And if you're going to broaden the base of the party, it helps to have someone who doesn't look like every other chairman.

"In certain times, and in certain situations, it matters who the messenger is," he said.

Charles Webster, chairman of the Republican Party in Maine, is a fan of both Steele and Limbaugh.

"Steele is an impressive guy," says Webster, who reported that there was a "mini revolution" among state party members when they learned that their three RNC members did not plan to vote for Steele for party chair.

"There was huge support for him up here," he said. "And, obviously, he is now the leader of the party."

"He's cleaned house, he's starting over, and he'll bring some dynamic people in," Webster said.

Webster and others, however, did take exception to Steele's suggestion during an interview on Fox News that he would be open to withholding re-election campaign funds from the three GOP senators who voted for Obama's stimulus package. Those senators are Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who is expected to face a tough challenge in 2010.

Bottom line, Steele should be about broadening the party any way he can — even embracing moderate Republicans who frequently line up with the party.

"If we lived under a parliamentary political system, an ideologically pure party that could get 30 percent of the vote would be a player," Ayres says. "But in the United States you need to get 50 percent plus 1 — and ideological parties lose."

"Michael Steele knows that," he said.

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