David Frum is correct that while Rush Limbaugh is popular among his audience and the conservative base, he’s very unpopular among the public at large. And it’s pretty clear that Democrats are using Limbaugh in an attempt to marginalize the Republican Party and to portray any criticism of President Obama’s agenda as extremism. But Frum is being too shortsighted in his analysis.
If you remember, back around 2004, there was an attempt by Republicans to portray Democrats as the party of Michael Moore. Over and over again, Republicans reminded people that Moore was invited to sit in Jimmy Carter’s box at the Democratic National Convention, and that Democrats had become the anti-war, anti-American, party of surrender. At the time, it worked. John Kerry was forced to vacillate between criticizing the war that he voted for to satisfy the anti-war base of his own party while tempering his position to appeal to the center and stave off charges that he would be a weak commander in chief. It reinforced the flip-flopper label.
Moore was seen by most moderate Americans as an extremist and propagandist, but the position that he represented –echoed by the likes of MoveOn and DailyKos – was that the Iraq War was a failure and the Democratic Party had to be unapologetically anti-war. And what happened? By 2006, the idea that the Iraq War was a failure had become more or less a mainstream opinion, and the Democrats took back Congress vowing to bring it to an end. In 2008, a guy just a few years removed from the Illinois state senate was able to win the Democratic nomination in large part because of his early opposition to the war which his chief rival had voted for – and in the general election, he beat a war hero as things improved in Iraq and the focus turned to the economy. It didn’t matter anymore when Republicans screamed about Democrats waving the white flag of surrender, or of them being the party of Michael Moore and MoveOn.
So, the important thing is not whether or not Limbaugh himself can attract moderates to the party (he is not a candidate last I checked), but whether, at some point in the future, a party built on conservative principles can win a majority again. That’s the essence of Rush’s message when you get beyond the theatrics. Republicans have a choice. They can work with Obama and give him bipartisan cover. They can hope to extract token concessions while Obama gets 99 percent of what he wants. They can decide that the era of small government is over, and that the only way to win again is to become the party that makes big government run more efficiently. OR. The Republican Party can return to the limited government principles on which it won landslide victories in 1980, 1984, and 1994 – so that when the Obama administration’s policies fail, Republican candidates can offer a genuine alternative.
The bottom line is that a few years from now, if we’re looking at some variation of high unemployment, tepid growth, and double-digit inflation, moderates will be receptive to a conservative message, and Democratic efforts to portray Republicans as beholden to Limbaugh will fall on deaf ears. And if, for the first time in history, a massive expansion of government leads to an economic boom, then Republicans will be doomed anyway.