A crusty old doctor I knew was fond of this little pronouncement: "The Democrats told me that if I voted for Goldwater in 1964 our country would end up in a war in Southeast Asia. Turns out they were exactly right. I voted for Goldwater and we ended up in a war in Southeast Asia."
The real irony in this joke was that Goldwater's continued presence in the Senate after the election did more to advance Johnson's policies than the election itself. Every time the Johnson Administration tried to push a major initiative, needing some Republican votes for either passage or legitimacy, they made sure to get Goldwater on record in opposition. Then they would pressure Republican lawmakers into signing on, lest they be seen as extremist Goldwater Republicans.
In later eras, Jesse Helms and Newt Gingrich served in this role on behalf of Democrat triangulators. Fortunately or unfortunately, there are no serving Republicans, House or Senate, who can be cast in this curmudgeonly role today. This puts the Democrats at risk of having to pass all their bills by party line votes. The Democrat electoral future will be at risk; if the policies are seen to fail, the principled Republican opposition will win back the Congress.
Who can they use as the symbol of party extremism, enabling them to bend the spineless Republican center to their will? By now it has become quite clear how they have solved this problem. Right alongside appointed Senators Burris and Gillibrand, the Democrats have appointed as Honorary Senator none other than Rush Limbaugh.
Limbaugh has been targeted for criticism by Democrats before, usually for things taken way out of context. When Democrats claimed that Social Security was insufficient to provide old people with more than dog food, Limbaugh joked about buying his mother a can opener for the Alpo. Congresswoman Pat Schroeder ran to the House floor to decry this heartless abandonment of his mother to a harsh fate. More recently, Rush referred to "phony soldiers" who had invented atrocities which were later disproved. Harry Reid signed a letter to radio stations protesting this attack against the military.
Still, these forays have been periodic; perhaps better said, episodic. Other than a brief interlude in which Bill Clinton seemed to be obsessed with him (until James Carville advised against giving Limbaugh attention), there has not been a general strategy to go after him relentlessly. In the last three weeks, this has clearly changed. From the Trojan Horse attack by General Powell to swipes from more Democrats and media personalities, an unrelieved barrage has been directed his way. This campaign reached its climax last Friday when the newly minted President told Congressional Republicans in a meeting that listening to Limbaugh would not endear them to the American People.
Here the President is demonstrating the exact nature of the strategy. Use "Senator" Limbaugh to triangulate just as Goldwater and Helms were used in the past. Surely the Arlen Specters and the John McCains and the Lindsey Grahams would not like to be seen as Dittoheads. They can only prove their vaunted sophistication, their acclaimed moderation, their lauded toleration, by becoming the useful idiots of the Obama juggernaut.
If indeed the phrase "Republican principles" has not been rendered an oxymoron, their only hope at ever achieving primacy in the public eye again is if they are observed scrupulously. Time and again we have seen that if Republican want to define themselves as big-government-but-cheap, they will be doubly rejected for lacking both direction and generosity. If the Democrats' Limbaugh strategy works, Republicans will spend a generation or more in remote exile.
Ironically the only hope for a comeback in the near future is to embrace Limbaugh, or at least to embrace the people like me who are proud to have Limbaugh as our voice to the nation. The next time, or the next hundred times, some Democrat agitator culls some quasi-toxic quote from the fifteen hours a week of Rush's ingenious advocacy, every Republican Representative or Senator should be ready with the same sound-bite. "Boy that Rush, he is a hoot, always with a clever joke to back up his profound analysis. Discount his little gag lines and underneath you will find a substantive Reaganesque analysis as good as any pointy-headed intellectual type."
Do I have much hope that Specter and McCain and Graham et al. will withstand this assault? Well, I would love for my words to make me the tightener of bad bearings, but I fear my dyslexia may get in the way.