A battle is raging within the Republican Party over its future direction and what it should stand far. This is not uncommon for parties after they lose an election, especially as decisively as the GOP did in 2006 and 2008. Being locked out of power in the House, the Senate, and the White House, Republicans have little more than the threat of a filibuster when it comes to actual legislative control. This is a sharp contrast from the heyday of the GOP as recently as the 2004 election. Since then, the GOP has been in a tailspin.
Shortly before President Obama's inauguration, I argued that there were three political figures who posed very real problems to the GOP: Ronald Reagan (because voters under 35 barely remember him, if they even remember him at all), Barack Obama (because he is creating a new generation of loyal Democratic voters), and Sarah Palin (because she caters to a wing of the Republican Party that makes it very difficult for the party to expand its base).
These arguments still hold true now, but they have become compounded by the fact that there is a leadership vacuum in the GOP and nobody seems sure of who should fill it. There is no clear person Republicans can point to and immediately identify as their party's leader.
John McCain? He's yesterday's news, and conservatives were never really on board with his candidacy anyway. John Boehner? Who's that? Mitch McConnell? Whatever. Eric Cantor? Maybe in a few years. Michael Steele? He may be the party chair, but is he really the one calling the shots?
Further complicating matters, the party risks becoming a party of opposition rather than a party of ideas in the minds of the voters. For Republicans, the worst part of all of this is that given the new president and the extraordinary circumstances facing this nation in terms of the economy and foreign policy, the public is looking intently at their leaders in Washington for guidance. What are Republicans doing to take advantage of this opportunity?
If they're not criticizing the new president's policies and pushing for more tax cuts, they're apologizing to conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh who has emerged as the most visible face of the GOP. Democratic strategists are now looking at Limbaugh with glee.
Back in January when Limbaugh said he "hoped Obama failed" and the Obama administration responded to these remarks, I argued that it was a crafty way of drawing Republicans into a fight they could not win:
"By elevating Limbaugh, Obama is also shining a spotlight on the wing of the party Limbaugh represents. This puts the cool and bipartisan Obama against the fiery and antagonistic Limbaugh.Obama wins because he gets to ignore Limbaugh and look reasonable and mature by comparison. (Limbaugh most recently challenged Obama to appear on his radio show for a debate. A debate?! With the President of the United States?! On a radio show?! With a non-politician?!) Democrats win because they can turn Limbaugh into a political albatross for congressional Republicans by forcing them to repudiate him or embrace him. And Limbaugh wins because he will undoubtedly garner higher ratings and influence in conservative circles.
[T]his presents a dilemma for Republican politicians. Do they distance themselves from Limbaugh because his rhetoric is over the top? Or do they embrace Limbaugh and risk limiting their appeal beyond the conservative populist base?
Obama is far more popular among far more people than Limbaugh is, and it appears that Obama may have put the Republican Party in a bit of a box by giving the least attractive wing of the party (politically speaking) a larger stage.
For Republicans harboring broader political ambitions, Rush Limbaugh may help them in the primaries, but send them to their doom in a general election. President Obama may have outfoxed Republicans by stoking the fire and letting Limbaugh win the battle at the expense of losing the larger war."
Republicans in general, however, are the big losers here. They tried very hard to play the "guilt by association" card against Barack Obama and congressional Democrats during the last campaign, especially when it came to William Ayers and Jeremiah Wright. Now the same tactic is being used on them with an even greater effect.
It is important to note that most Republicans who are still in Congress (in other words, they survived the 2006 and 2008 landslides) hail from districts or states that are solidly Republican. They don't have to worry about appealing beyond this conservative Republican base. However, that base is no longer large enough for the party to remain competitive. It is impossible for Republicans to embrace Rush Limbaugh and grow their base at the same time.
Obama himself is wisely staying away from talking about Limbaugh now. However, by baiting Limbaugh early on, he set a trap for Republicans. And by ignoring Limbaugh now, Obama can continue to take the high road and look presidential while his Democratic allies prolong the fight and turn moderates and independents away from the Republican Party. Meanwhile, Limbaugh continues to flail away as congressional Republicans continue to trip over themselves to avoid offending him. Now the Republican Party runs the risk of being known as the party of "no" and the party of "Rush," thus working to the Democrats' advantage.
That might not be "change" to Obama's critics, but it is shrewd politics.