How fortunate for Barack Obama that Rush Limbaugh, big radio personality and leader of the instinctual far right, has yet to retire to a sunny island with his bottles of pills. At a moment when Republicans on Capitol Hill feel they must pretend to negotiate with the popular new president over spending to revive the economy, he blurted out what they really feel.

Speaking on his daily broadcast and later on Fox News about the president’s prospects, Limbaugh said forthrightly, “I hope he fails.”

With those words, he turned his ample silhouette into the rhetorical target of choice for Obama, who warned the Republican leadership that they “can’t listen to Rush Limbaugh” and expect to accomplish anything useful. Hoping to preserve the spirit of bipartisan good will that attended his inauguration, the president is offering politicians on the other side of the aisle a stark choice. They can work with him or they can join the radio extremist who wants him to fail — and could not care less about the consequences for America.

As always, Limbaugh articulates his opposition to the stimulus plan in the ideological jargon favored by his party. Evidently he fears that if the United States spends more money on highways, railroads and modernizing our electrical grid, we will shortly come to resemble the old Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China or even Cuba. Improving schools and expanding health coverage is just more “socialism” — and why would any right-thinking Republican hope for that to succeed?

But while he flatters himself as a “thinker,” the sad fact is that Limbaugh often sounds as if he’s motivated more by resentment than philosophy. During an interview on Fox with his soul mate, Sean Hannity, he revealed that in this time of national distress he is obsessing over an old grudge.

“I disagree fervently with the people on our side of the aisle who have caved and who say, ‘Well, I hope [Obama] succeeds. We’ve got to give him a chance.’ Why? They didn’t give Bush a chance in 2000. Before he was inaugurated, the search-and-destroy mission had begun.”

In reality, the Democrats displayed little appetite for obstructing George W. Bush, who lost the popular vote but got his way on tax cuts in the summer of 2001. The Democratic congressional leaders and the entire country rallied to the side of the president after 9/11 — and the Democrats were rewarded with savage assaults on their patriotism in the following year’s midterm election.

Even now, Limbaugh remains deaf to the bipartisan appeals of the Obama White House, which has tried, perhaps too hard, to change the tone in Washington. “I never hear Democrats talking about walking across the aisle,” he complained to Hannity. “I never see any of them praise each other or brag about the fact that they do it. They brag about the Republicans that they destroy.”

What all this inane ranting proves is how remote Rush and his imitators are from the urgent concerns of the American public, including not only Democrats and independents but a growing number of Republicans, too.

According to current polling data, the Limbaugh line is potentially perilous for any politician outside a firmly right-leaning district.

As thousands of jobs disappear every week, as the security and aspirations of millions of families evaporate, most Americans hope fervently that the Obama stimulus plan will succeed. They hear nothing from the Republicans except demands for new tax breaks that will chiefly benefit the same privileged people who have made out so well during the past few decades — and who now take taxpayer money and spend millions on private jets and fancy office furniture.

When President Obama considers how much of his stimulus spending to apportion to tax cuts in a vain attempt to appease the opposition, he ought to remember how Limbaugh described the hidden attitude of Republican leaders. “I know what our [GOP] strategy is. They’re hoping he fails, so that they can go back and say, ‘We wanted him to succeed. We gave it everything we got. We worked with him, but. …’ “

So perhaps the best course is not to worry too much about winning Republican votes in the Senate or about what they’re saying on talk radio, but to simply do what will work best for the country — and let the Limbaughs whine on, as they always do.

Joe Conason writes for The New York Observer.

© 2009 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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