Steele vs. Rush--Sort Of

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Rush Limbaugh's barn-burner at CPAC this weekend drew a line in the sand, once again, for Republicans: either they want President Obama to fail, or they don't. RNC Chairman Michael Steele, subsequently, walked a tightrope on the issue last night in an interview with D.L. Hughley on CNN.

Conservative and liberal blogs alike Monday picked up on Steele's response, some blasting Steele and others promoting a fight between the two GOP heavyweights. But Steele's answer to Limbaugh, and its political implications, were a bit more complicated.

First came the question of Steele's status as party leader. Hughley challenged the RNC chairman, asserting that Limbaugh is the GOP's de facto leader. "No he's not," Steele responded. "I'm the de facto leader of the Republican Party."

On the philosophy behind Limbaugh's "fail" assertion, Steele supported the conservative commentator; on the rhetoric of it, Steele stood opposed to Rush:

"How is that any different than what was said about George Bush during his presidency?" Steele asked, making a point Limbaugh himself made during the CPAC speech, in response to Hughley's blasting of Limbaugh's "incendiary" rhetoric.

"Let's put it in the context here," Steele said. "Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer. His whole thing is entertainment...yes, it's incendiary, yes, it's ugly." And that's the line that has gotten the idea of Steele vs. Rush so much play in the blogosphere today.

The complexity of Steele's response stands in stark opposition to that of House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, who, speaking on ABC's "This Week" yesterday, clearly distanced himself from the radio commentator's claim: "Nobody--no Republican, no Democrat--wants this president to fail, nor do they want this country to fail or the economy to fail," Cantor said.

While Cantor and Steele both attacked the rhetoric, there are big differences between their political situations: Cantor, as a prominent leader in the House GOP, has to work with Obama; Steele, as the party's top political officer, has to generate campaign cash, balance the interests of the GOP's base--much of which, evidently, strongly agrees with Limbaugh--all the while asserting himself as political top dog in the GOP against claims that Limbaugh is the party's de facto leader.

Steele has put forth a vision for a more inclusive GOP--not necessarily inclusive to the idea of working with Democrats, but inclusive to new voting demographics--and "incendiary" rhetoric like Limbaugh's may seem to threaten his chance at bringing in new votes. Then again, nothing generates campaign donations like passionate support, and nothing generates passionate support like "incendiary" opposition to Democrats.

The idea of Steele attacking Rush likely isn't one the RNC wants floating around the blogosphere--after all, Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) ended up calling Limbaugh to apologize for criticizing him in January--but Steele stood behind Rush's desire for Obama to "fail." He may not be reaping the media-coverage benefits for doing so, but the distinction highlight's Steele's position between Limbaugh, Cantor, and the GOP donor base.

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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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