I actually don’t think there’s much to the comparison of Rush Limbaugh to Oprah Winfrey. Yes, they are both entertainers, communicators, motivators, and people with an appeal to certain demographic groups. Yes, they both preach a certain you-can-do-it message to their target demographics. No, Limbaugh isn’t a political leader, an intellectual, an activist, a reporter or a policy analyst.
But Limbaugh is a political commentator, associated with a specific political movement, with allegiance to a particular Reaganite-Kempian strain of that movement, and an explicit, identifiable set of political positions. He doesn’t interview Miley Cyrus or have Tom Cruise jumping on his couch. (I guess to make the analogy work he’d have to interview Jordin Sparks and have Chuck Norris jumping on his couch.) Oprah’s Obamania aside, her politics are implied more often than they are stated, play at best a tangenital role in her appeal, and would turn off a good bit of her audience if she were more outspoken about them.
Pat Buchanan ran for president in the 1990s rallying a base he first cultivated as a television and newspaper commentator. William F. Buckley Jr. ran for mayor of New York as a columnist and editor of National Review. Limbaugh has done neither of those things. It is not abnormal for people who admire and agree with a political commentator, who think that commentator has something important to say, to follow that commentator’s political lead.
What may be abnormal is that the conservative movement hasn’t produced political leaders capable of inspiring people the way Ronald Reagan did and commentators have had to try to fill the void. If movement conservatives confuse Limbaugh with a leader, it is because they are not getting leadership elsewhere. And people who don’t identify with the right’s social base as it is rather than as they wish it were are going to have trouble providing that leadership.
That said, I do think the Jon Stewart analogy works a bit better.