Those of you paying attention this past week were privy to a little piece of history. If you watched television or listened to the radio, surfed the internet or opened a newspaper, you got to witness the darkest moment in American politics in at least the last twenty years. Darker than the adultery and subsequent impeachment of Bill Clinton, darker than the Supreme Court-adjudicated election of 2000, darker even than Sarah Palin’s bumbling, borderline race-baiting during last year’s campaign, what I’m talking about could signal the beginning of the end for a major political party — or worse yet, the surrender of that party to its most extreme ideological elements.
I’m talking about the elected chairman of the Republican National Committee meekly apologizing to the host of a radio show for expressing a mild criticism. In case you missed it, in short order here’s what happened:
Last Saturday, February 28, RNC Chairman Michael Steele appeared on D.L. Hughley’s CNN show and said this: “Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer. Rush Limbaugh — his whole thing is entertainment. He has this incendiary — yes, it’s ugly.” True to form, Limbaugh threw a tantrum on his radio show the following Monday, declaring to his audience of twenty million that he was not in charge of the Republican Party, wouldn’t want to be, and would be so embarrassed by the party’s performance that he would resign and possibly even commit suicide if he were in charge. Moments after Limbaugh’s show went off the air, Steele responded to his resentful foot-kicking and breath-holding by calling to apologize. Steele later told Politico.com, “I’m not going to engage these guys [DNC Chairman Tim Kaine and others who commented on the Steele vs. Limbaugh spat] and sit back and provide them the popcorn for a fight between me and Rush Limbaugh. No such thing is going to happen. . . . I wasn’t trying to slam him or anything.”
Which is what makes Steele’s apology so disappointing, and so disturbing. He wasn’t slamming Rush Limbaugh. What he said was absolutely true and nothing to apologize for. Steele’s crime wasn’t criticizing Limbaugh; it was being a Republican and criticizing Limbaugh.
Before his backpedaling retraction, Steele’s challenging of Limbaugh was the first glimmer of light to come out of his party in years. The Republican Party, and the American conservative movement generally, isn’t well disposed to introspective self-analysis. When Ann Coulter addressed CPAC two years ago and called John Edwards a faggot, when Sarah Palin repeatedly implied that Barack Obama was a friend to terrorists before cheering crowds of rabid supporters, the response of the party was not to marginalize this rhetoric, but to circle the wagons and declare that Coulter, Palin, and Limbaugh and his fellow right-wing talkers are . . . well shit, I’ll let Michael Steele say it: “a very valuable conservative voice for our party.”
Steele folding like a pup tent after getting the slightest rise out of Limbaugh isn’t surprising. Steele is weak — a nice guy, likable at times, but not as funny and not nearly as smart as he would like to be. He ran for a U.S. Senate seat here in Maryland in 2006 and was easily beaten by the sedative Ben Cardin. Fortunately, there are other voices within the party who see the importance of standing up to Limbaugh. The one getting the most attention this week is David Frum. He published a much sharper critique of Rush in a blog article this past Tuesday — and he’s not apologizing:
“And for the leader of the Republicans? A man who is aggressive and bombastic, cutting and sarcastic, who 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. And we’re cooperating! Those images of crowds of CPACers cheering Rush's every rancorous word — we’ll be seeing them rebroadcast for a long time.”
For speaking out for the good of his party, Frum was roasted by Mark Levin, the shrillest and most vicious voice on right-wing radio. Levin, who regularly describes President Obama as a Stalinist, and abuses and insults callers and invited guests who exhibit even the most mild disagreement with his hard-line conservative philosophy, claimed to be upset at Frum making personal attacks against Limbaugh.
David Frum, demonstrating more integrity and intellectual courage in a few minutes than Limbaugh, Hannity, Levin, et al have displayed throughout their combined careers, called in to Levin’s show the next night. The call, which carried on for half an hour, saw Frum repeatedly attempt to make measured, rational arguments only to be shouted down and belittled by Levin, who boasted about the size of his audience compared to Frum’s paltry book sales and went off on a series of other egotistical tangents, lowering the volume on Frum’s call in order to shout him down more effectively. The call ended with the following exchange:
FRUM: We need to have a more relevant approach to economic issues that understand that it is health care that is crushing the incomes of middle income Americans. We need a new approach to the environment that accepts the legitimacy of [global warming]. We need a softer line on social issues and an emphasis on competent, intelligent and fairer issues.
LEVIN: Basically, we have to surrender our principals. I get it.
A more relevant approach to economics, the environment, and social issues — and Levin interprets it as Frum advocating the surrender of his principals. Frum summed it up this way, in an article published yesterday on Newsweek’s website: “In the conservative world, we have a tendency to dismiss unwelcome realities. When one of us looks up and murmurs, ‘Hey, guys, there seems to be an avalanche heading our way,’ the others tend to shrug and say, he's a ‘squish’ or a RINO—Republican in Name Only.”
Frum sees what his party is precariously close to becoming. Already an unsettling transformation has begun in the Republican Party. In the wake of its latest electoral defeat, the party has seemed even less willing to recognize and correct mistakes than usual, and instead has grown more receptive to noisy ideologues like Limbaugh, Hannity and Levin. John McCain, who had to fight his own campaign, even his own running mate, to run a respectful race against Barack Obama, is treated like an unwanted guest, while Sarah Palin, a woman of no accomplishment but who professes a more acceptable conservative creed than the moderate McCain, is regarded as royalty; reasonable conservatives looking to help their movement evolve to remain viable are mocked and shouted down, while Rush Limbaugh, who openly and unashamedly roots for Barack Obama’s economic policies to fail, is affirmed as the de facto leader of the party.
So why do I care about any of this? I’m not a Republican, I’m not a conservative, I have no stake in the future of that party, that movement. But I do have a stake along with the rest of us in the future of democracy. As much as I would love to see the end of the two-party system, I’d rather it happened because voters left both major parties in favor of a few smaller ones that better represented their interests, not because fanatics took control of one party and kicked out all the dissenters. Democracy works best when there is honest disagreement, and compromise. In fact, that’s the only way it works. Limbaugh and Levin might want their party to be a monolith, but that only tells us where their priorities truly are. Frum again:
“Rush knows what he is doing. The worse conservatives do, the more important Rush becomes as leader of the ardent remnant. The better conservatives succeed, the more we become a broad national governing coalition, the more Rush will be sidelined.”
Frum gets it. So do a lot of other people, though it isn’t always easy to hear them. Some of the finest people I’ve ever known have been politically conservative — friends, teachers, relatives. They are compassionate, reasonable, rational people with whom I have drastic philosophical disagreements. For their sakes, and for the sake of our democracy, I hope the future of the Republican Party is decided by the Frums, not the bullies on the radio.