WASHINGTON — Perhaps you missed it, but Wednesday was the 19th anniversary of Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. Limbaugh was celebrating his ripe old age, in media years, on the same week that liberal blog fans were trekking to Chicago for the YearlyKos convention. Therein lies one of the most important stories in American politics.

Make no mistake: From the beginning, Limbaugh was a revolutionary figure. He befuddled Democrats and the journalistic establishment because he was an up-to-date throwback. The large audience he won on the right marked the return in the U.S. of openly partisan mass media, a 19th-century phenomenon that had all but disappeared in the late 20th century.

Limbaugh is not primarily about information, though he freely uses even those bits that come his way courtesy of dreaded “liberal” media sources. His goal is mobilization, and he has been extremely good at it. He spawned conservative imitators in media markets all over the nation and aroused a faithful band of dittoheads who despise all things liberal and Democratic.

The greatest gift to Limbaugh was Bill Clinton’s election as president in 1992. Talk show hosts are much better on offense than defense. Limbaugh was unusually hesitant about Pat Buchanan’s challenge to the first President Bush during the 1992 Republican primaries because their fight split Limbaugh’s base. With Bush dispatched that fall, Clinton brought conservatives together in rage, and Limbaugh stoked it. He deserves major credit for the Republicans’ 1994 landslide.

Democrats and liberals realized they needed a mobilizing force of their own, but could not match Limbaugh’s reach on the radio. Enter the Internet, and Markos Moulitsas Zúniga.

An Army veteran, a former Republican, and the son of a Salvadoran mother and a Greek father, Zúniga, 35, created his Daily Kos website on May 26, 2002 — “in those dark days,” as his site puts it, “when an oppressive and war-crazed administration suppressed all dissent as unpatriotic and treasonous.” Daily Kos took off because so many Democrats shared Zúniga’s view of the second President Bush.

Daily Kos is often described as liberal, but it is, more than anything, partisan. Its core assumption is that ideological conservatives made the Republican Party their vehicle and rallied in lock step against Democrats. The party of FDR and JFK needed to find the same discipline. The key litmus tests for Kos and his many allies in the blogosphere involve not long lists of issues developed by the ACLU or the AFL-CIO, but loyalty in standing up against Bush and doing what’s necessary to build a Democratic majority.

And just as Limbaugh aroused passionate opposition on the left, so has Kos become the object of conservative rage. In the lead-up to Zúniga’s Chicago gathering, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, a right-wing showman who knows a threat when he sees one, has gone after Kos. “There’s no question that the most vile stuff imaginable is posted on this hate site and others like it,” O’Reilly said Tuesday.

O’Reilly is irate that the leading Democratic presidential candidates are showing up this weekend. “The far left wants a quasi-socialistic economy and a one-world foreign policy, where national security decisions are made only with the approval of other countries,” O’Reilly fumed. “So that’s the soup the Democratic presidential candidates will be dining on when they show up at the Kos convention.”

I’m not in the habit of giving advice to Bill O’Reilly, but there’s always a first time: Liberal rage at Rush Limbaugh not only was useless, it actually strengthened his credibility with the right. (I speak from experience.) Bill, I bet Markos loves what you’re doing.

Personally, I dislike the use of obscenity on the Web, and many online posts are way too nasty. But the right wing, suddenly so concerned with the niceties of political discourse, did not worry much about what its militants said about Clinton, Al Gore or John Kerry. Limbaugh even blamed the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, on a president who had been out of office for eight months. I’m still waiting for his apology.

George Bush and Dick Cheney have heaped praise on Limbaugh (“Well, Rush, you’ve got a great show, as always,” Cheney said during one of his many interviews) because he’s an effective organizer for the right — even if Limbaugh has, of late, become disenchanted with some of Bush’s policies. Limbaugh desperately needs a Democratic president. Another Clinton would be perfect.

Democratic candidates know they owe a debt to Zúniga. They’re paying homage to him because he has started to beat Limbaugh and O’Reilly at their own game. No wonder O’Reilly is so annoyed.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group


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