For conservatives, the news of the week was Rush Limbaugh’s speech to the annual CPAC conference in Washington DC. The speech achieved all and more that Rush could have hoped: It was rapturously received by the more than 8,000 conference attendees and broadcast live on Fox News. Better still, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, appearing the next morning on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” acclaimed Rush as the “voice, energy, and intellect” of the Republican Party.

So everybody’s happy, right? Well, everybody except Republicans who care about their party’s future electoral chances. As ardently as Rush’s fans adore him, Limbaugh is one of the less popular figures in American public life. He polls especially poorly among two groups whom Republicans must attract in the future: independent voters and women. Independents take a negative view of Limbaugh by a 45-22 margin. As for women … well Rush himself has acknowledged the problem. “Thirty-one point gender gaps don’t come along that often,” he mused on his Feb. 24 program.

Rahm Emanuel knows what he is doing: The more hermetically he and his team can affix Rush’s image to our Republican behinds, the more difficulty we shall have climbing out of the hole we have dug for ourselves.

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In a blog post Monday, I pointed out this (not exactly secret) problem. Then I engaged in a rare act of conservative lese-majeste: I actually explained it.

Here’s the duel that Obama and Limbaugh are jointly arranging:

On the one side, the president of the United States: soft-spoken and conciliatory, never angry, always invoking the recession and its victims. This president invokes the language of “responsibility,” and in his own life seems to epitomize that ideal: He is physically honed and disciplined, his worst vice an occasional cigarette. He is at the same time an apparently devoted husband and father. Unsurprisingly, women voters trust and admire him.

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.

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.

But do the rest of us understand what we are doing to ourselves by accepting this leadership? Rush is to the Republicanism of the 2000s what Jesse Jackson was to the Democratic Party in the 1980s. He plays an important role in our coalition, and of course he and his supporters have to be treated with respect. But he cannot be allowed to be the public face of the enterprise—and we have to find ways of assuring the public that he is just one Republican voice among many, and very far from the most important.

Well, that put the cat among the pigeons! The reaction from my conservative friends has been ferocious. Here’s my one-time editor, Rich Lowry of National Review: “I find the attacks on Rush from the right mostly stupid, cringe-inducing, and wrong.” For good measure, he explicitly described my words as “particularly nasty and personal.”

But personal is the one thing this dispute is not. What we are arguing about is the kind of party the GOP will be. Over just the past couple of weeks, Limbaugh has compelled apologies first from a Republican congressman, then from the chairman of the Republican National Committee, for criticizing him. He has extracted tributes praising him as a—if not “the”—leader of the party from the RNC chairman and the governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal. Not since the Republican wilderness years of 1993-1994 has Rush held such uncontested sway. But back then, Rush was content to play a supporting part. Now he has assumed—or been conceded—the starring role.

Back in the 1970s, on the eve of the great Republican victories of the 1980s and 1990s, we on the right aspired to displace America’s liberal governing elite with an elite of our own—“a counter-establishment” as journalist Sidney Blumenthal aptly described it. But our last experience of government was a disappointing one to say the least, and the whole problem of government seems to interest us less and less. Increasingly, we are vexed and motivated only by what we call “the culture.” It’s never quite clear what precisely we mean by that: maybe only the sum of all things that annoy conservative-minded people.

We are gradually shrinking from our former ambition—to govern—and taking our pleasure instead in alienation and complaint. Those journalists who cover the conservative world are surprised by how relieved and happy conservatives seem to be about having lost the 2008 election. No more irritating compromises, no more boring policy debates! We can recline into the pure assertion of conservative dogma, a job nobody does better than Rush Limbaugh himself. As Limbaugh told the CPAC crowd: We need no new policy ideas. Conservatism, he said, cannot be reshaped or reformed, and those who suggest otherwise must be “stamped out.” And who knows? That view may prevail among Republicans for some long time to come. But if it does, watch out. Just as the American left retreated from politics into the universities in the 1980s, so—if Rush has his way—will the American right retreat from politics into the airwaves in the 2000s.

For my part, I’ll adopt the justly famous philosophy of that anonymous American soldier who, upon reaching the front line at the Argonne just as the French army was giving way, exclaimed: “Retreat hell! We just got here.”

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