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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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The Immature White House

Barack Obama's campaign was launched in January, 2007 with an appeal to change the tone of our political discussion. In fact, Obama identified that as the principal problem with our politics, saying:

But challenging as they are, it's not the magnitude of our problems that concerns me the most - it's the smallness of our politics. America's faced big problems before, but today our leaders in Washington seem incapable of working together in a practical, commonsense way. Politics has become so bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence, that we can't tackle the big problems that demand solutions. And that's what we have to change first. We have to change our politics, and come together around our common interests and concerns as Americans.

I thought there was some real merit to this claim, which is a big reason I found his candidacy so intriguing at the time.

But, when the first major political battle of his administration came, the President tossed "change the tone" out the window. Sure, he was willing to ply his Republican opponents with some cocktails at the White House - but when that didn't do the trick, he resorted to attacking a straw man, falsely implying that his opponents preferred to do nothing at all.

Now, we have come to the second major political battle of his administration, and - whaddaya know! - his team is attacking a straw man once again. This time, they are doing so by pushing the patently absurd claim that Rush Limbaugh is the leader of the Republican Party. Democrats have been batting this one back and forth for a few weeks, but now we know that the White House has been intimately involved in the strategy:

By February, Carville and Begala were pounding on Limbaugh frequently in their appearances on CNN.

Neither Democrat would say so, but a third source said the two also began pushing the idea of targeting Limbaugh in their daily phone conversations with Emanuel.

Conversations and email exchanges began taking place in and out of the White House not only between the old pals from the Clinton era but also including White House senior adviser David Axelrod, Deputy Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Woodhouse.

The White House needed no more convincing after Limbaugh's hour-plus performance Saturday, celebrated on the right and mocked on the left, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where he re-stated his hope Obama fails.

"He kicked this into full-gear at CPAC by reiterating it," said a senior White House official of Limbaugh.

By Sunday morning, Emanuel elevated the strategy by bringing up the conservative talker, unprompted, on CBS's "Face the Nation" and calling him the "the voice and the intellectual force and energy behind the Republican Party." [SNIP]

Democrats can barely suppress their smiles these days, overjoyed at the instant-ad imagery of Limbaugh clad in Johnny Cash-black at CPAC and, more broadly, at what they see as their success in managing to further marginalize a party already on the outs.

What's the political payoff here? It's simple. By assigning Limbaugh - who "wants the President to fail" - as the leader of the Republican Party, the White House can make it look like congressional Republicans hope the President fails, and that their opposition to his budget is rooted in this sinister desire. It's an easy way to misrepresent Republican opposition to the President. Just as his Republican opponents wanted to do nothing in the face of economic collapse, they oppose the budget because they want the President to fail.

I understand why Democrats in Congress, the media, and the DNC are doing this. Frankly, that doesn't bother me at all. That's the way political games are played, and GOP politicos have certainly done their fair share of this over the years to deserve all that they get. But I am deeply disappointed that the President himself is playing this game - not just because he is the President and this kind of nonsense should be beneath him. It's also because he is the President in part because he promised he wouldn't do this stuff! And yet, we've seen this kind of immature nonsense quite a bit from an administration that has only been in place for a month.

The White House can play these idle political games if it wants. It can stay in permanent campaign mode and work to impeach the credibility of those who question its policies - congressional Republicans, Rick Santelli, Jim Cramer, and anybody else who voices opposition. However, none of that will alter two simple facts: (a) there is an election coming in 20 months; (b) the public will vote based upon its evaluation of President Obama's performance, not Rush Limbaugh. To that end, I'd suggest that the Chief of Staff spend more time ensuring that...oh, I don't know...the British aren't offended for no good reason than whether Limbaugh finds his way to the top of another news cycle.

It's been twenty six months since Barack Obama delivered that web announcement proclaiming his concern for the tone - but it feels like it has been much, much longer. Lately, I've been thinking about that historic primary battle - when Democrats chose "change the tone" over "ready on day one." If Democrats had chosen Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama - we would probably still be seeing this kind of political hardball, but would it come with this sort of useless, thoughtless, clueless snubbing of our closest ally? I doubt it.

-Jay Cost