Alter: Rush Is Making the GOP the Party of Wimps

Rush Limbaugh, the man who did more than anyone else to create the modern Republican brand in the 1990s, is now destroying it. Everyone knows he has "jumped the shark" culturally—become a black-shirted joke even as he dominates the headlines. But it's worse than that for Republicans. Limbaugh has taken the great GOP calling card—toughness—and shredded it. The party of Lincoln is in danger of becoming the party of Jell-O. (Article continued below...)

Witness the specter of party leaders from Georgia Rep. Phil Gingrey to South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford to Republican Party chairman Michael Steele all issuing craven apologies to Limbaugh after uttering the truth, which is that Rush's rhetoric is "ugly" and that he was wrong to say he hoped President Obama would fail. The monster the GOP collectively created—Rush's "dittohead" army of conservative listeners—makes life miserable for anyone who dares criticize the Great Bloviator. By enforcing right-wing political correctness, the dittoheads are making their party leaders look weak.

Strength, of course, has been the great, well, strength of the GOP. Starting with reactionary vitriol directed at the New Deal (echoed today) and extending through the Cold War, Republicans have long had the advantage of looking and sounding more muscular than Democrats. For most of the last century, conservatives have been depicted as "rock-ribbed" and liberals as "whiny."

The problem became especially acute in the 1970s, when former U.S. Navy Lieutenant Jimmy Carter was turned into a girlie man. An editor jokingly entitled a Boston Globe editorial about Carter "More Mush From the Wimp" and it accidentally ran in the paper. This symbolized public attitudes toward liberals, and the caricature paved the way for Ronald Reagan's 1980 victory and the 1994 GOP takeover of the House of Representatives.

Limbaugh was a key player in that takeover. For two decades, he has provided a daily three-hour national advertisement for the GOP specifically and the conservative movement in general. Because most mainstream media types in Washington and New York don't listen, they never fully understood how big Rush had become.

But nothing lasts forever. Rush's audience remains huge, with a weekly audience of more than 20 million, and will stay large for as long as he broadcasts. If his listeners can forgive him sending his poor housekeeper into a parking lot to score drugs for him, they will forgive anything. But these folks no long represent the American mainstream. In fact, while 28 percent of Americans still identify themselves as Republicans, 29 percent call themselves independents. Plenty of the indies might still be listening to Rush, but they don't take their marching orders from him anymore. To them, he's just another entertainer.

When Obama first mentioned Limbaugh in a meeting with Republicans during his second week in office, he was chastised for elevating him in a way that didn't befit a president. But it quickly became clear that any contest between Barack and Rush was not really a contest at all—and that this is a fight the president is happy to have. The president's popularity is in the 60s, and the entertainer's, according to internal Democratic polling, is in the 20s. So Rahm Emanuel and Robert Gibbs are now piling on, describing Limbaugh as the "intellectual force" and "de facto chairman" of the party.

It works. And it will keep on working until enough Republicans grow a spine. When they show enough guts to ignore the thousands of calls and e-mails from dittoheads, maybe they'll get their party—and their self-respect—back.