Is Rush Limbaugh really the voice of the Republican Party? Does he really represent the road to a resurgence of conservativism in American politics? Has he legitimized the hope that Barack Obama fails?
These questions and others about the man who got his start in talk radio right here in little old Sacramento are at the heart of the bigger question that is on the minds of many politicians in both parties since the election of Obama last fall: Has the GOP been reduced to a regional party with a strong base in the old South and a near disappearance in much of the rest of the country?
Put more directly and perhaps less charitably: Just who, in the age of Obama, are these guys?
Some pundits are going so far as to write the obituary for the Reagan Revolution. That observation may be just a tad premature, but no one can deny that the GOP is floundering in the first months of Obama’s assault on the policies that have controlled the nation’s course for most of the last 30 years.
Several factors are at play. First, the nation is definitely recovering from Bush fatigue, a condition that set in shortly after the former president’s re-election is 2004, reached critical mass in 2006, and then exploded in 2008. Bush, Cheney, et al. were essentially dismissed as significant leaders long before Barack Obama’s inauguration, and their political party was dumped along with them. That single fact made anything but an Obama victory last November almost inconceivable and can even make the 7-point margin of his victory seem surprisingly small.
But old habits die hard, and for many voters the combination of recollections of the feel-good years of Reagan’s two terms (not true, but nostalgia does things to the rational mind) and the continuing fear of another 9/11 attack kept some voters from deserting the party they had felt comfortable with for all those years.
Second, without a national political figure to lead the charge, it is very hard for a party to define itself. The Democrats found this out, painfully, in 2001 when, having lost the presidency and with control of neither the House nor the Senate, no one could coalesce a message in opposition to that of George W. Bush. That reality really hit home following the 9/11 attacks, as the Republican president took complete command of the crisis by declaring, in rapid succession, that the United States was at war against terrorism, was going to war in Afghanistan and would “liberate,” for the cause of freedom in the Middle East, the oil-rich country of Iraq.
In the face of this onslaught, Democrats quickly divided into ardent pacifists (who were immediately dismissed as out of touch), whining anti-Bushies (who were ignored because they had nothing constructive to offer), and those claiming to be the “better defenders of liberty” (who were viewed curiously because they first voted for military action before they voted against it, never really explaining why they had cast either vote).
Fast forward eight years, and you have much the same disarray in the Republican Party. With the Democrats now in control of the presidency and both houses of Congress, no elected Republican can really claim to speak for the party. Moreover, with the country in the midst of the economic equivalent of a 9/11 attack, the new president has all the power, leaving the loyal opposition with the same list of inept alternative reactions as the Democrats faced under the post-9/11 Bush presidency.
And so we have many Republicans claiming fervently that excessive government spending is not the answer, akin to the pacifists in the Democratic fold eight years ago. We have others who merely complain about Obama’s failure to “consult” and “engage” with them, akin to the whining Democrats of eight years ago. And we have those who claim they can fashion a better government recovery plan, akin to the Democrats who asserted they could fight terrorism better than Bush in the aftermath of 9/11.
For the moment, none of those approaches are resonating with the vast majority of Americans, primarily because none of them amount to a meaningful alternative to what the guy most Americans voted for, and even more want to succeed, is saying and doing.
And so, it falls to a non-politician to take up the charge, and for the Republicans, Rush Limbaugh fills the bill perfectly. Limbaugh is all bluster, of course. His actual knowledge of world affairs is limited, as is true of many in his profession, to what the editorials in the Wall Street Journal tell him. His talking points, those that are original, are the same ones Ronald Reagan preached in an entirely different era. But for the base, they wear well.
Distrust tax and spend liberals. Cherish freedom (then an anti-Communist code phrase, now an anti-radical Islam rallying cry). Honor individualism over government interference. Respect the men and women in uniform. Salute the flag.
Those phrases work at places like C-PAC (the Conservative Political Action Conference) where Limbaugh was the big star last weekend. And they work on his talk radio show, where he is preaching to his choir of ditto-heads but few others.
And they will keep the flame, such as it is, of the Republican Party alive until a more viable opening for a resurgence appears. When that day might come is anyone’s guess, but those who look ahead might focus on the 2010 off-year elections. At that point, Obamanomics will have had the better part of two years to make an impact on the economy. If conditions in the country then are no better than they are now (Dow below 7,000, unemployment near or above 8 per cent), all of Barack Obama’s rhetorical eloquence is unlikely to stem a tide back towards Republican control of Congress.
On the other hand, if by then the economy has started to rebound, the Republican Party may need Limbaugh to keep spouting his banal cries in the wilderness, and the GOP may have to hunker down for an extended period of its identity crisis.