March 14, 2009
In the current Newsweek magazine, conservative writer David Frum mounts a broad critique of radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, that self-described "lovable fuzz-ball" who delights in tweaking liberal Democrats. Frum points out that the problem Limbaugh exemplifies is not just that the Republican Party and the conservative movement are bereft of compelling ideas these days, it is that they are stylistically obnoxious, going out of their way to alienate more and more Americans. President Obama may be utterly wrong on every major issue, leading the country on the road to perdition, but at least he comes across as sincere, calm, and reasonable. In contrast, the newly-crowned de facto leader of the Republican Party
is aggressive and bombastic, cutting and sarcastic, [and] dismisses the concerned citizens in network news focus groups as "losers." 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. [Italics added.]
Ouch! Frum then offers an insight that has troubling implications: When the GOP falters, Rush prospers -- and vice versa. This means that Limbaugh actually has a financial incentive in Republican setbacks. Moreover, Frum writes, "Rush is to the Republicanism of the 2000s what Jesse Jackson was to the Democratic party in the 1980s." When he said he wants President Obama to fail, without clarifying that he wanted Obama's program to fail, Rush "drew maximum attention to himself, offered maximum benefit to the administration and did maximum harm to the party he claims to support."
But no Republican of importance can challenge Rush without being taken to task. Mild criticism from RNC Chairman Michael Steele was followed by humble apology, and likewise from South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, who implied that anyone who (like Rush) wants President Obama to fail is an "idiot" * As the new voice of the GOP, Rush even challenged President Barack Obama to a debate -- in his studio and on his terms, of course. His tongue-in-cheek style just isn't as cute as it used to be, though.
When a political party and movement is on the ropes such as is the case with the Republicans and conservatives right now, nothing is more important than having wise, courageous leadership. I still have a nostalgic soft spot in my heart for Rush, but these days he makes me cringe at least as often as he makes me smile. Unless he can manage enough introspection to recognize his own personal faults, and the faults embodied by so many zealous and intemperate conservative Republicans these days, I'm afraid that the GOP coalition will become even narrower, at a time when it desperately needs to be enlarged. If so, this country will keep sliding by default toward a socialist Gomorrah, without an effective force to mitigate or reverse this trend.
* See, for example, Huffington Post.
A similar line of critique, though from the Left, was made by Thomas Frank in the Wall Street Journal. He attended the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, and observed an unseemly attitude of "capitalist self-pity" even from such sensible conservatives as Mitt Romney. Frank drew a parallel between the "zombie" financial institutions burdened by toxic assets and the transformation of conservatism into a "movement of the living dead." It's a funny metaphor, imagining right-wing partisans who stagger forward spouting discredited slogans with no other purpose than to obstruct efforts to save the economy. (Frank was the author of What's the Matter With Kansas, which I reviewed in October 2004.) Hat tip to Matthew Poteat.
Many self-described conservatives no doubt fit Frank's description, and I would argue that it is a manifestation of the widespread "cognitive dissonance" in the Republican Party today: The very same people who castigate others for alleged deviation from "conservative principles" are by and large the most loyal supporters of former President George W. Bush, whose credentials as a conservative are exceedingly weak. The "zombie" description certainly does not apply, however, to the genuine intellectual conservatives who comment on politics: George Will, David Brooks, Kathleen Parker, David Frum, and many others. In time, more and more rank-and-file members of the Republican Party will wake up to the phoniness that pervades the Party of Lincoln today, and start paying heed to the thoughtful critiques.
On a similar note, two weeks ago, the Washington Post detailed the "cleansing" that the conservative movement is undergoing right now, as various leaders in Congress shape the terms of the internal debate. Former Sen. Newt Gingrich, former Gov. Mitt Romney, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, and Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia are among the leading voices in this difficult and agonizing process. There are others, such as Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes, and while I think they may have important insights to offer, I hope they don't take a leading role in articulating a new, post-Bush conservative agenda.
Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling visited Staunton this morning, at the "Staunton-Augusta-Waynesboro" (SAW, formerly "SWAC") Republican breakfast, and Steve Kijak was there to get some photos. Lt. Gov. Bolling is a fine, worthy public servant, and he deserves reelection. My students were very impressed by his mastery of parliamentary procedure in presiding over the Virginia Senate during our field trip last month, expeditiously reading the bill titles, allowing brief statements from senators, and conducting the final votes in a highly efficient manner.