Balloon juice

Richard Heene, who appeared on the reality show “Wife Swap,” reportedly hatched the hoax in hopes of landing a new television contract. In the process, he manipulated the media, frightened a national audience and did untold psychological damage to his young boys.

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Sure, he may now face jail time. But he’s famous!

Which brings us to Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.

I will resist metaphoric references to the girth of celestial bodies and the temperature of the air that fills some balloons. But Heene’s bad behavior has parallels to the reckless rants from the GOP’s two most powerful voices.

Both Beck and Limbaugh have taken to the air to frighten those considering vaccinating their children against the H1N1 virus. “You don’t know if this is gonna cause neurological damage like it did in the 1970s,” declared Beck. “Who [gave] the notion that you gotta have this shot?” asked Limbaugh. “Government did. The Obama government, to be specific. The next time you hear, ‘The government says,’ don’t believe it. You’ll be healthier, trust me.”

Despite clinical trials by the National Institutes of Health determining the vaccine is safe and effective, a new Washington Post/ABC News poll finds 39 percent of parents are planning not to vaccinate their children, with more than half citing concern about the possible side effects. Meanwhile, a Chicago-area school was shut down this week after 972 students called in sick with flu-like symptoms.

For Rush and Glenn and Balloon Dad, the allure of media attention is too powerful to be curbed by a sense of social responsibility. Limbaugh, after all, is the guy who recently voiced his displeasure with New York Times reporter Andy Revkin by saying: “[I]f he really thinks that humanity is destroying the planet, humanity is destroying the climate, Mr. Revkin, why don’t you just go kill yourself and help the planet by dying?”

With such vitriol spewed by conservative commentators, you might expect congressional Republicans to rush to condemn them.

But Republicans from conservative districts want to prevent primary challenges by staying in the good graces of their right-wing base.

So few Washington Republicans dare to take the wind out of the sails of Limbaugh, Beck or their fanatical brothers-in-arms.

If the GOP continues to be defined by the radical right, there are larger electoral implications. In the Post/ABC poll, Democrats enjoy a 12-point lead on the congressional generic ballot test, two points higher than their lead just prior to the 2006 midterm election, when Democrats picked up 31 seats and won the House majority after 12 years of Republican control. Even more telling, just 19 percent of those surveyed by the Post have confidence in congressional Republicans to make the right decisions about the country’s future — compared to 34 percent for House Democrats and 49 percent for President Barack Obama. By doing nothing to contain the crazies, Republicans risk their brand getting away from them.

When a troubled soul with nothing to offer craves the national spotlight, he builds a balloon and tells an outrageous story. When a political party with no good ideas thirsts for power, it outsources its message to those who manufacture fear and incite anger.

In both cases, runaway recklessness is doing damage to America. And to think otherwise is just balloon juice.

Del Cecato is a partner at AKPD Message and Media, the political consulting firm founded by David Axelrod in 1985. He served as media adviser and admaker for Obama for America and Obama-Biden 2008.