So it took a Republican Senate primary in Delaware for Rush Limbaugh finally to realize that Karl Rove sucks. When the Tea Party-anointed Christine O’Donnell defeated establishment Republican Mike Castle in Delaware’s GOP primary Tuesday, Rove chastised GOP voters on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program for not being politically practical, in defeating the allegedly more mainstream and electable candidate. With Rove claiming that O’Donnell’s victory ensured a Democratic win in the general election, Limbaugh went after Rove as representing the “Republican establishment” and viciously attacked that establishment for always shortchanging conservatives.

I remember well listening to Limbaugh one afternoon last spring as he interviewed Rove, who was promoting his new book. I had been on the radio that morning, singing the conservative praises of then Kentucky GOP senatorial primary candidate Rand Paul, who I lauded as a potential new, powerful Tea Party leader. One caller asked, “Jack, this sounds great, but why have I never heard of this guy?”

And the caller had a point. Outside of Kentucky and a few liberty-minded bloggers, no one had really heard of Rand Paul at that time. Hannity was too busy gushing over Scott Brown to mention him, Fox News barely acknowledged Paul’s existence, and Limbaugh, who never does interviews, was busy breaking his cardinal rule to do just one high-profile interview — not with any rising Tea Party candidate, but with Karl freaking Rove. The same Karl Rove Rush attacked this week for betraying conservatives is the same guy whose book Limbaugh was heavily promoting in March, the title of which, Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight, Rush plugged many times without the slightest hint of irony.

To be fair, Rove’s never really changed. Rush has. Rove has never adhered to conservatism, and he’s certainly never fought for it. That Rush has finally realized this only this week should lead some to question the talk giant’s actual conservative worth.

Rove is now being attacked for being a practical strategist, concerned first with Republican electoral victory, and second, if at all, with advancing any tangible conservative principle. Does this not also pretty much describe Limbaugh’s or Hannity’s radio programs, and precisely the reason Rove has been so welcome on each for so long? Hell, Rove is such a regular on Hannity’s program that he has his own theme music. Rove is likely surprised by some of the attacks this week from his conservative friends — after all, mainstream Republican hackery has always been his business, and for years conservative talk radio has considered that business a joint venture.

But this spat does illustrate the beauty of what’s happening on the grassroots Right, that despite liberals’ contentions to the contrary, and with the arguable exception of Glenn Beck, it is not talk radio that is currently leading the Tea Party — it is the Tea Party that is currently leading talk radio. If a figure like Rove was heralded on Rush’s program six months ago and Hannity’s show every six minutes, now both hosts have to realize that much of their audience has little use for such old guard Republicans. If talk radio has traditionally seen the primary dividing line as being between “evil” Democrats and guys like Bush, John Boehner, and Mitch McConnell, who, although imperfect, were still Republicans and therefore valiant, the Tea Party today is as antagonistic toward such Republicans as any Democrat.

No amount of Rove-style raving could have persuaded Tea Partiers to back away from outside-the-mainstream figures like O’Donnell, Sharron Angle in Nevada, Joe Miller in Alaska, or Rand Paul in Kentucky, to support the allegedly more electable and “respectable” candidates. Party men like Rove used to be able to count on pundits like Limbaugh and Hannity to reliably help steer rank-and-file GOP voters in the Republican establishment’s preferred direction, but now the talk radio audience is steering these pundits toward supporting candidates they would have no doubt once deemed too radical. Rand Paul has now been on Hannity’s program multiple times. “Conservative” talk radio hosts do not want to be perceived as less conservative than their audience, and that audience has swiftly moved Right. Rush’s recent attacks on Rove are but one reflection of this shift.

In the wake of Tuesday’s Delaware primary, the American Spectator‘s James Antle described the current Tea Party mood: “Rank-and-file conservatives no longer trust the Republican establishment. They don’t trust big-spending incumbents. They don’t even trust conservative magazines, websites, and commentators who in their view run down conservative candidates.” Part distrust, part partisan fatigue, and no doubt part rage, the rank-and-file Right no longer marches dutifully to conservative talk radio’s orders, and to the extent that it is perceived that they do, it is more likely that figures like Limbaugh and Hannity have had to move in their direction.

Surveying the Tea Party movement, former president Bill Clinton said this week that many of these new grassroots Republican candidates make George W. Bush look like a liberal. He’s right. If defining that term using the parameters of the Tea Party’s primary focus — government size and spending — the debt-doubling, entitlement-expanding Bush was indeed a liberal. So is Karl Rove. And for all practical purposes, so is any so-called conservative who still finds him of any worth.

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