Michael Steele probably didn’t think his CNN interview would go like that. When asked about Rush Limbaugh’s “want Obama to fail” remarks, Steele disowned Rush, calling him an “entertainer” and his show “ugly” and “incendiary.” Steele also claimed that he, not Limbaugh, was the de facto leader of the Republican party.
Limbaugh, as you might expect, didn’t like that, and hit back. He accused Steele of a) misunderstanding his job, b) ingratitude, and c) incompetence. Steele backed down and allowed that he might have been a “little bit inarticulate.” (A little bit?). According to Steele, the whole incident was a misunderstanding, the result of a verbal slipup. Which is probably true, though Steele’s “inarticulateness” is truly incredible for someone in his position.
But Steele’s gaffe raises an interesting question: where does Rush Limbaugh fit into the conservative movement? Many (including Rush) consider him the de facto leader of the Republican party; certainly, he has been the only person whose criticisms of Barack Obama have landed with any force at all.
Further, talk radio in general, and Limbaugh in particular, are the only Republican voices with any moral authority or effectualness left. The conservative blogosphere still lacks (with a few exceptions) any real influence. Grassroots Republicans are a tiny group of overenthusiastic political junkies. And the Republican establishment (as personified by the Republican National Committee and the Republican remnant in Congress) is so discredited and tarnished that it is almost powerless.
If Rush isn’t the leader of the Republican party, then nobody is. He is certainly conservatism’s most popular and effective spokesman. But not every conservative thinks that’s a good thing.
Many conservative thinkers (particularly among the younger, less traditional set), think that Rush is at worst a bight on the GOP and at best taken only in small doses. The idea is that moderates will see Rush as a hateful bomb thrower, the same moderates see Rush as the spokesman of the Republican party, moderates leave and it’s goodbye Republicans.
At one extreme of this point of view is David Frum, who goes to far as to suggest that Limbaugh wants Republicans to lose in order to amass a larger audience for himself. At the more moderate and reasonable end of the spectrum is Ross Douthat, who writes that the fact that so many conservatives look to him as a conservativee True North, which makes them look like “starstruck fools.”
So if Rush is the leader of the conservative movement, and/or of the Republican party, is that an undesirable thing?
Yes and no. Rush Limbaugh is a very effective spokesman for the conservative movement. He has seniority—it’s hard to think of anyone who has worked in the conservative movement longer. (George Will, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, and a few others, but I doubt any these people could rally a movement, nor would they want to). And he as talented a media presence as exists in America—only Oprah Winfrey has comparable talent. Conservatives could (and probably would) do much worse than to let Rush speak for them.
But if Rush Limbaugh can dominate the conservative movement, he would make a poor leader of the Republican party. A political party is different from a political movement—it requires compromise, and openness, two things Limbaugh isn’t known for.
A parallel (though like most parallels it is imperfect) can be drawn to William F. Buckley’s position during the Sixties and Seventies. Buckley was the undisputed leader (even more dominant than Limbaugh) of the conservative movement, and was every bit as contentious and polarizing as Limbaugh. And his leadership of the conservative movement worked.
But while Buckley was the preeminent name of the conservative movement, his position in the Republican party was very different. He led a growing and increasingly important party bloc—but it was only a bloc. Party leaders such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were the leaders of the Republican party. Conservatives were an important part of the party, but hardly the only element.
But will Rush’s polarization and extremism drive off moderate voters? There isn’t any convincing reason to think so. The Republican party has coexisted quite well with Rush for the past twenty years, and there’s no reason to think that now Limbaugh is persona non grata with moderates. Most moderates voted for Barack Obama this time around, but didn’t feel the need to identify with the Michael Moore wing of the Democrat party. There’s no reason to think that the same wouldn’t be true of Republicans.
(Note: When I say Rush Limbaugh “speaks for conservatives,” obviously, that can never be quite true—there will always be conservatives who disagree with him. But the same will be true of any political leader, and by “speak for,” I mean represent a sizable majority of the group.)