What’s the worst that can happen? If the concern is elevating Limbaugh, well, he’s already been plenty elevated these past few days. And if Limbaugh acts like an ass and disrespects the president then all the more fodder for the idea that conservatives are nasty sore losers, which is a political winner for the White House. Hell, Obama might even win over some dittoheads. It would be an amazing political-cultural moment, that’s for sure.
It’s worth saying that it would actually be unusual for a President of the United States to debate the formal leader of the opposition. George Bush didn’t debate Harry Reid when the Democratic Senate minority was the main obstacle to his legislation in 2005-6 and he didn’t debate Nancy Pelosi when the Democratic House majority was the main locus of opposition to his administration. Bill Clinton didn’t debate Newt Gingrich. In our system, presidents usually affect quasi-monarchical disdain for direct engagement with the enemy.
The larger issue, meanwhile, is that the stakes would be off-kilter. If they went at it, and 25 percent of people came away impressed by Rush while 40 percent were impressed by Obama and the remaining 35 percent deemed the whole thing dumb, that would be a net benefit for Rush (who’s just a radio host, happy to have the allegiance of a large-and-impassioned minority) and a net loss for Obama (who’s a national politician who needs a broad base of support) notwithstanding the fact that Obama would have “won” in a strict sense.
Right now, the White House is trying to exploit that mismatch. Actual GOP elected officials are, like Obama, dependent on a broad base of support. Rush isn’t, anymore than I am. So making him the public face of opposition winds up making the real opposition look bad. But the point is to win the fight with the real opposition—the folks who need to stand for re-election—not with the radio host.