With his private plane and his cigars, his history of drug dependency and his personal bulk, not to mention his tangled marital history, Rush is a walking stereotype of self-indulgence – exactly the image that Barack Obama most wants to affix to our philosophy and our party. And we’re cooperating! Those images of crowds of CPACers cheering Rush’s every rancorous word – we’ll be seeing them rebroadcast for a long time.
Rush knows what he is doing. The worse conservatives do, the more important Rush becomes as leader of the ardent remnant. The better conservatives succeed, the more we become a broad national governing coalition, the more Rush will be sidelined.
-- David Frum
David Frum is something of a rarity in American politics these days. He's a conservative who is intelligent, introspective, and nuanced. Fairly or not, the public thinks of “conservatives” when exposed to the stentorian bellows of Bill O'Reilly, the passive-aggressive snits of John Boehner, or the emotional toxicity of Ann Coulter.
Of course, Frum is an actual conservative, as opposed to the wild, extremist right wingers who run around the county co-opting the word “conservative” because it's much less scary than “fascist.” He is a good example of what the GOP used to be, back before it became a motley collection of southern white bigots, religious whack jobs, and self-indulgent right wing billionaires, all under the control of multinational corporations. He comes from an era when conservatives didn't question the right of people to live lives free of government interference and resisted efforts by America to police the world and use debt as a financial and political weapon. Their role, back in the day, was to put brakes on the rate of change. They got their name because they wanted to “conserve.” They wanted to preserve what they valued in America.
Of course, demagogues long ago learned the value of such language, and even back then, extreme voices on the far right started using conservative jargon in order to hide their agenda and appeal to people who largely saw themselves as conservative.
Frum has touched upon the core of Rush's situation. Obama isn't his enemy. Obama is the best thing to happen to Rush, who has spent eight largely frustrating years carrying the GOP's water for them as they disintegrated under the vicious, but fortunately inept, presidency of George W. Bush. Cheerleading for Bush and his cohorts couldn't have been much fun, and “But Clinton But Clinton But Clinton But Clinton” could only take him so far. He was just lucky that most of his listenership doesn't read newspapers or pay attention to actual politics, so they remained largely unaware that enthusiastic cretins in the GOP tried implementing large and disparate chunks of Rush's vision for the world into actual policy, and the results were uniformly catastrophic, as any thinking person could have predicted in the first place.
Now, like most right wingers, he's back in the role of opposition minority. This is a much more natural role for them, because theirs is not a philosophy that lends itself well to the ambiguities and challenges of open debate. Most elements of their cobbled together philosophy are disparate and contradictory, and that's because it's designed to appeal to a wildly divergent set of splinter groups, most of whom dislike or distrust the other groups. The only real point of commonality was a willingness to try to limit the rest of America to their own narrow visions. The utter inchoate rage that is the Republican “base” manifested itself in the Bush administration, a regime that wanted to be a dictatorship but lacked the courage to go through with it. Inchoate rage is great if you simply want to oppose, but utterly useless if you want to rule, let alone something as tricky as govern.
For Rush, it's a god-send. Once again he can bluster and strut, and sneer wholeheartedly at the White House and Congress without pissing off his audience. Safe from the accountability that comes with governance, he can create little worlds for his disaffected audience in which a little torture will always save New York from a mushroom cloud, inner city poor only want a free ride on the backs of the groaning productive members of society, and liberals live only to force good Catholic girls to get abortions and marry gays.
For the GOP rank-and-file, it's a nightmare. The party leadership, such as it is, is pretty much locked into simply refusing anything the Democrats want, with reckless disregard for how that impacts the country. The party let itself be maneuvered into appearing to be “the party of Rush Limbaugh” by having him orate at CPAC, and then by having their party chairman, Michael Steele, engage in a mild confrontation with Rush, followed by a humiliating climb-down. Steele backed off in part because a lot of Republican “leaders” pressured him to do so.
Most people consider Rush to be loathsome, and that includes quite a few Republicans. As Frum notes, he's exactly the wrong image for a party that is trying to reassure voters that it isn't a plaything of greedheads, bigots, and demagogues. Rush, like the GOP leadership, tries to span all three vices.
For years, Rush bellowed into his mike and made a fortune, and it was at the expense of Democrats. But when he tried transitioning from Radio Gasbag to anything else, it was a failure. Newt Gingrich and the newly minted 104th Congress of 1995, the revolutionaries come to completely revamp Congress, named Rush an “honorary member” of that Congress, and despite all the political cachet and popular support they had at that high-water moment, were stunned to hear people on both sides of the blue and red divide laughing at them. Whenever Rush popped out from behind his mike, he was slapped flat, whether as a TV host (where he actually mocked a 12 year old girl as a “dog” and then clumsily tried to lie his way out of it), or as a football announcer (where his racist remarks about a gifted quarterback got him fired) or the utter disaster when he guest-hosted a TV show in front of a live audience.
Rush's opinions can't withstand scrutiny, and he knows that better than anyone. Why do you think he hides behind that mike, armed with phone call filters and with a switch to shut a caller down just in case a smart-ass gets past the filters? That's why his recent challenge to debate President Obama is such a joke: he knows Obama would never take him up on it, and counts on his followers to not realize that he would never dare debate James Carville or Randi Rhodes or Michael Moore, all of whom are much more in his peer group, and any of whom could utterly dismantle Rush.
The GOP rank and file know it too, and are appalled that Rush has become the face of the GOP, a notion gleefully pushed by Democrats who also realize that Rush is a buffoon and makes the GOP look foolish and weak.
So now, Rush bellows into the mike and makes a fortune, but it's at the expense of the GOP. Rush, whose true political affiliation is “whatever puts money in Rush's pockets,” is delighted. He doesn't much care if the GOP flat-out dies, just as long as he has Democrats to bash. He knows that the mindless “antis” he appeals to cannot run a country, should not run a country, and will not run a country. But they are bitter and disaffected, and they will always congregate around gasbags like Rush, who promise them their day will come.
That day did come, and they took over a major party. And it's been a disaster for that party, and for the country. And Rush found himself losing influence and ratings as a result.
Rush appeals to losers, and he needs his losers to remain losers, or he doesn't appeal any more. This cynical equation excludes much in the way of consideration for the fortunes of the GOP.
The GOP has a demented leadership that is just stupid enough to think that appealing to Rush can help them.
And the party rank-and-file can only watch all this, and think of train wrecks.
And hope that conservatives like David Frum find a way to take the party back while it still exists.
March 11, 2009