Monday, March 2, 2009

Fools Rush In

The CPAC convention is over, the conservative faithful leaving Washington, D.C. to carry their message back home, energized by the words of their anointed leader, Rush Limbaugh.

As Fox, CNN and C-SPAN carried his speech live and commercial-free, Limbaugh closed CPAC’s 37th national convention by rallying conservatives still smarting from the Democrats’ 2008 sweep of all branches of the national government and expanded electoral reign in the states.

Limbaugh exhorted conservatives to stay upbeat, blasted the alleged socialist agenda of the “Democrat Party,” and called out the new president, the one he hopes will fail. “President Obama: Your agenda is not new, it’s not change, and it’s not hope,” Limbaugh thundered, to wild applause in the Omni Shoreham’s packed Regency Ballroom, as overflow crowds in three of the hotel’s other convention rooms watched by live feed. “Spending a nation into generational debt is not an act of compassion.” Conservatism itself, preached Limbaugh, was the sole bulwark against the frightening possibility of Obama destroying the country and the Republican Party. “[Conservatism] is what it is and has been forever,” he said. “It is not something you can bend or shape.”

But strip away the platitudes and cheap applause lines about freedom, self-reliance and the virtues of capitalism, and you’re left with the subject that really interests Rush Limbaugh: himself. The conservative talker with the self-professed “talent on loan from God” spoke incessantly in the first person: there were more “I’s” in his CPAC address than in an Idaho potato field. One clear message emerged from the speech:

“Le mouvement conservative, c’est moi.”

This is not an unusual occurrence after a party loses; they dither about for a while looking for a leader to emerge from the ranks or out of the blue. It happened with the Republicans in 1964 and the Democrats in 1972, and quite often they end up with a lot of regrets. It takes a couple of cycles for them to get the message: Nixon begat Reagan and Carter begat Clinton. So it’s only natural that the Republicans are looking high and low for a leader to bring them back, and right now, they’ll take anybody, including a radio talk-show host with enough lung power to mesmerize the masses and enough ego to think that he could actually wrestle the spotlight away from a very popular president.

The problem is real leadership requires more than just ego and punch lines, and so far that point has eluded the conservatives. Mr. Limbaugh deals in absolutes. He takes a stand, makes a proclamation, and brooks no dissent. He makes a point not to put forth a discussion but to end it. If he has ever articulated a nuanced point of view about anything — and he seems intelligent enough to do so — he has never allowed it to be made public because that is not how you make a fortune in talk radio. People don’t tune into Rush Limbaugh to hear a balanced debate about the economy or health care; they want to hear his pronouncements and get their marching orders. Accuracy and fact-checking isn’t required because even if he’s proven wrong, all it does it make the point that someone outside his orbit is paying enough attention to what he says to make him a player in the game. To be fair, this kind of demagoguery isn’t limited to just the folks on the right. There have been plenty of annoying and infuriating absolutists on the left, too. The difference is that none of them became the de facto leader of the Democratic party.

When you’re desperate, you will grasp at anything that offers a faint hope of rescue and redemption. That would explain the fascination with Sarah Palin — who chose to skip CPAC — and Joe the Plumber, who didn’t, and then push the unprepared understudy — Gov. Bobby Jindal — out on stage before he’d learned his lines and who kept bumping into the furniture. Rush Limbaugh is smooth, polished, loud, has all the answers, and demands absolute fealty; just the kind of leader the conservatives naturally lean towards anyway. He fills the void left by the absence of a real elected leader. Or, put another way, nature abhors a vacuum, and Rush Limbaugh is really full of it.