The 36th Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) took center stage this weekend as a platform for the current thinking of the Republican Party. Speakers included Mike Huckaee, Mitch McConnell, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Ralph Reed, Bill Bennet, Ann Coulter, and others. Sort of a who's who of public conservatism today.
But the real attention-getter was the talk show host Rush Limbaugh. Now both the White House press secretary Robert Gibbs and the RNC chair Michael Steele are dancing around Limbaugh's comments.
Regardless of all other ideas and speeches during this "insider" rally for conservatives, Limbaugh's more inflammatory and provocative comments stirred up the faithful. And with no other audience than his radio listeners and no other accountability than to himself, he let the words fly.
It's a mix of rhetoric, values, and pomp that no public official could say, and the anti-Republican segment is eager to embrace the most outragious statements as speaking the "true mind" of the Republican party, even calling Limbaugh the "de facto leader" of the RNC.
So begins the problem of who gets to define the new or renewed tenets of Republicanism. The RNC Chair Michael Steele made things worse by first questioning Limbaugh on CNN, then taking it back, questioning then supporting, in an awkward move to both embrace Limbaugh (and his base) and distance himself from him.
In the past, Rush Limbaugh has escaped criticism for his comments by claiming himself to be an "entertainer." When I learned this (from an old court case on slander - sorry, can't recall which one but it was during the Clinton administration), I began to treat Limbaugh's comments as much less than serious. Gaining an audience is not the same as speaking responsibly. And as long as Limbaugh can take the "entertainer" escape hatch, there is little to keep him accountable.
Limbaugh's popularity (noteriety?) makes him an inescapable reality of modern Republicanism. But he is one segment. Limbaugh has criticized other forceful conservative voices like George Will and David Brooks. Both Will and Brooks are clear, thoughtful, and articulate, but it seems their interactions with "the Left" leave them under suspicion. Limbaugh's ideological boundaries can be very tight.
We all knew that the election of a Democrat, any Democrat, would re-charge the Limbaughs of the world. What we did not know is how effectively the White House could isolate and stigmatize the range of conservatism and how clumsy the bureaucratic leaders of the RNC would be in figuring out where they stand.