Rush is our leader? God Help Us

In a sign that we are indeed nearing the apocalypse, some are chattering that, perhaps in these pre-RNC Winter Meeting days, Rush Limbaugh is the closest thing we have to a leader on the right. And I, for one, could not be less thrilled. From the San Francisco Chronicle:


It happened the other day while Obama was visiting with congressional Republicans in an effort to get them to support his economic stimulus package. Said Obama to the lawmakers: “You can’t just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done.”

On his Monday program, Limbaugh shot back that the president was “obviously more frightened of me than he is of (Senate Minority Leader) Mitch McConnell. He’s more frightened of me than he is of, say, (House Minority Leader) John Boehner, which doesn’t say much about our party.”

It wasn’t that Obama’s mention was mean or personal, analysts said. But in citing Limbaugh as influential, the president of the United States elevated a talk show host to his level – the leader of the free world. And in a leadership vacuum like the one that conservatives find themselves in after last November’s devastating electoral losses, loud voices – like Limbaugh’s with his 13 million weekly listeners – echo even louder.


I have the utmost respect for Rush Limbaugh. He was able to rise up from nothing to become on the most recognizable voices on the right. He is able to spin ideas in very folksy turns of phrase and able to coalesce his followers around an issue or politician. One thing he is not, however, is a heavy thinker. He is a conveyor of ideas, yes, but he is not one who thinks into the wee hours of the night about how to solve our national crises. He is also not a political practitioner; he is not into himself able to influence policy or make deals. He is influential–he surely deserves some credit for zero Republicans voting for the stimulus yesterday. At the end of the day, however, he does not care who he offends. 


But while an Oval Office shout-out may temporarily elevate a man who refers to himself as El Rushbo, it doesn’t make Limbaugh the de facto leader of the Republican Party or the conservative movement. He is, analysts say, a “conveyer belt” of information, influencer of the wider talk radio universe and an outside-the-Beltway party whip who reins in wayward Republicans – as in those veering toward political moderation.

“Whenever a national party is in search of its identity, its mojo, figures like Rush will fill the vacuum,” said Mike Franc, a vice president for government relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “But in this situation, he doesn’t fill the idea. He’s more of an idea aggregator.”


I should admit, however, that I don’t have any easy answers about who our next leader will be. I do know, however, that it will not be an easy process. 


The real rebuilding of the conservative brand begins Friday when the Republican Party chooses who will be its new party chair. In the absence of a GOP president, House speaker or Senate majority leader, that person will become the face of Republicanism on cable and network chat shows, the party’s chief fundraiser and one of conservatism’s leaders at a time in which the movement is desperately searching for some leadership.

That quest will continue next month, when hard-core conservatives gather at their annual Conservative Political Action Conference, a coming-to-Mecca type of conference featuring the party’s up-and-comers, such as Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.


I also know that we cannot allow Rush to have disproportionate influence in these difficult days. Is he a voice for us? Yes, no doubt. His words in the years leading up to 1994 led to the party’s resurgence, and certainly he will be of use in this time of great temptation to stray from conservatism for short term gain. Ultimately, however, Rush is for himself–I’m not saying that he is all about the money (though certainly that plays a role) but his words are his own. To allow them to become OUR words risks placing us outside of credibility with the larger bloc of voters, as Rush presents an image of being geared for offense and allergic to compromise (to say nothing of his personal issues, which are bound to come under attack once more, and rightfully so). Unfortunately, those are not the rules under which politics operates in the larger sphere outside of radio. Talk radio is a way to activate voters, but not a way to lead. 

And so the search continues.

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