By MARC McDONALD
When Rush Limbaugh first began spewing his daily dose of bigotry, lies and GOP propaganda back in the mid-80s, Republican leaders rejoiced. In Limbaugh, the GOP had a powerful spokesman who managed to persuade working-class white men to vote against their own interests.
In Limbaugh, the GOP also had a powerful political weapon. In the 1990s, they needed to tarnish President Clinton's reputation. And Limbaugh was on the case, sliming Clinton on everything from Vince Foster to Whitewater. No facts or truth was required, just smears.
Limbaugh's success spawned an entire industry of like-minded right-wing talk radio propagandists, each more extreme and outrageous than their predecessors. They proceeded to take over the AM radio dial. Then Fox News appeared, as well as the likes of Drudge and other right-wing Web sites.
Limbaugh, however, remained the King of GOP Propaganda. And millions of ditto-head listeners across the nation lapped up everything he dished out.
Throughout the 1990s, Limbaugh appeared to be an invaluable asset to the GOP.
But it was all a mirage. In reality, Limbaugh was a growing problem for the Republican Party. And today, he's become a serious liability that continues to damage the GOP brand.
The first signs that Limbaugh was poison for the GOP occurred during the administration of George W. Bush. Of course, Bush was a disaster for the GOP. Which made things decidedly awkward for Limbaugh, the de facto spokesman of the GOP.
With Bush, Limbaugh had two options. The first was that he could criticize Bush and retain whatever few shreds of credibility he had left. The second was that he could support Bush.
Limbaugh, of course, chose to continue backing Bush. In desperation, Limbaugh continued to cling to the faint hope that the long train wreck that was the Bush presidency would eventually turn itself around and that Bush's approval ratings would halt their long descent. Of course, that never happened.
Bush never regained favor with the public. And since he blindly supported Bush to the very end, Limbaugh lost whatever credibility he had left.
Since the 2008 election, Limbaugh has relentlessly pounded away at President Obama every day. But Limbaugh's attacks on Obama are increasingly toothless and impotent and often reach the point of self-parody.
Today, Limbaugh has become a clown and a laughingstock to the general public. Sure, the shrinking numbers of ditto-heads continue to lap it all up. But nobody else takes seriously anything that Limbaugh says.
In short, Limbaugh is no longer converting anyone to the GOP's cause these days. And his once-powerful ability to spread GOP propaganda has been greatly weakened.
Even Limbaugh's once-formidable smear tactic skills have all but vanished. Over the years, Limbaugh has promoted so many discredited smears that nobody takes him seriously any more, outside of the ditto-head base.
Today's Limbaugh has become a pathetic shell of his former self. But for the GOP, it actually gets much worse. The fact is, these days, Limbaugh has become a major liability for the party.
This became evident around the time of the Sandra Fluke controversy. For years, Limbaugh had possessed a special talent to use sexist, racist speech and somehow not pay a serious price for it. But all that came crashing down when Limbaugh called Fluke a "slut" and a "prostitute."
Unlike previous Limbaugh controversies, the Fluke case didn't simply go away after a couple of news cycles. The controversy dragged on and on for months. It wounded Limbaugh deeply and led to a massive exodus of advertisers.
Of course, the Fluke case didn't merely damage Limbaugh. It damaged the GOP brand. After all, Limbaugh has been GOP's most powerful and high-profile voice for over two decades. Try as they might, GOP leaders were unable to effectively distance the Republican Party from Limbaugh's remarks.
It was one thing for Limbaugh to alienate African-Americans with his racist comments. It was quite another to alienate women (who, of course, make up a majority of U.S. voters).
I suspect that around the time of the Fluke controversy, the GOP's party leaders began to realize that they had a big, big problem on their hands with Limbaugh.
And it's a problem that's not going to go away. For all the talk about Republicans trying to become more mainstream, the fact is, Limbaugh today is as extremist and offensive as he's ever been. What's more, there's now an entire army of radical right-wing talk show hosts on the radio dial, along with the likes of Fox News and Drudge.
The right-wing propaganda apparatus shows absolutely no sign of moderating its extremist views. Listen to today's talk radio and you'll find hosts like Glenn Beck and Mark Levin, who are even more extremist and crazy than Limbaugh.
Besides damaging the GOP brand, the likes of Limbaugh and his talk radio clones are also a powerful force in pushing today's GOP to maintain its hardline, extremist positions. If any individual GOP politician dares to step out of line, he or she can expect torrents of abuse from the likes of Limbaugh.
I suspect today's Republican leaders realize that, in Limbaugh and his ilk, the party has created a Frankenstein that is doing far more damage to the GOP than it ever did to the Democrats.
It's hard for me to conceive of how the GOP will ever solve this mess. Even if they ever somehow persuade Limbaugh to tone down his extremist hate speech, a dozen other right-wing talk hosts will immediately step up to fill his shoes.
Indeed, I suspect Limbaugh realizes this dilemma himself. He likely knows that, if he tones down his radical views, he'll lose his audience to the other right-wing talk radio sharks who are circling in the water. On the other hand, surely even Limbaugh has grasped the fact that his extremism has severely damaged his beloved GOP in recent years.