Like many conservatives of my generation, I came of political age with Rush Limbaugh. I first began listening to the show after graduating from college and settling in Milwaukee.
I found his approach to issues a refreshing alternative to the dominant, left-leaning media, and above all, he was entertaining. His programs then began with a daily countdown to the end of Bill Clinton’s first term, which he dubbed, "America held hostage." When I moved to New York, I stood in line to see his television show and have him autograph a book.
Rush Limbaugh was an entertaining source of information, but nobody ever considered him the head of a movement or ideological forefather. Newt Gingrich was the intellectual force behind the Republican Party, giving a public face and ideological depth to conservatism, best articulated in the 1994 Contract With America, which called the country to fiscal and personal "responsibility" and led to a sweeping Republican victory in the 1994 midterm elections.
2000 was a turning point, something conservatives are only now reluctantly acknowledging. The presidency of George W. Bush was an unmitigated disaster for the Republican Party and for conservatism in general.
With Newt Gingrich’s demise and the rise of Tom DeLay, a fatal shift was underway. The GOP under Bush and DeLay swapped its ideological moorings for raw, power politics, doing whatever it had to do – rejecting pay-as-you-go principles for unfunded tax cuts, launching a "K Street Project" to raise millions from special interests and even creating the largest expansion of government in 40 years – to stay in power.
Before long, the Republican Party was a mirror image of the very thing it once opposed: A self-perpetuating bureaucracy shorn of relevance, rationale, and reason. An intellectual movement that once promoted tax cuts as the product of small government and fiscal responsibility became a pseudo-ideology, an evangelistic cult of tax cuts, the anytime, anywhere magic elixir.
Rush Limbaugh was still there, his following as large and vocal as ever. And as his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington this week illustrates, he fashions himself much more than an entertainer.
Appealing to "conservative intellectuals," he took to task "conservative media pundits" who "think the era of Reagan is over, who believe that conservatism needs to be redefined."
"The Declaration of Independence," he said, "does not need to be redefined and neither does conservatism. Conservatism is what it is and it is forever. It’s not something you can bend and shape and flake and form."
But conservatism has changed over the centuries. A Jeffersonian conservatism that cast a wary eye on military spending was jettisoned by pro-military conservatives; a party of predominantly economic conservatives was fused with Christian evangelicals after Roe v. Wade; and a fiscal conservatism averse to deficit spending was supplanted by a debt-inducing and intellectually false gospel of "starve the beast" tax cuts.
In short, the "conservatism" Mr. Limbaugh himself espoused in a 2005 Wall Street Journal editorial is the product of perpetual redefinition in response to changing times.
In response to Limbaugh’s CPAC speech, Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Michael Steele said, "So let’s put it into context here … Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer. Rush Limbaugh, his whole thing is entertainment" that is at times "incendiary" and "ugly."
Within hours, Steele was on the phone apologizing to Limbaugh and publicly retracting his challenge to Rush’s "voice or his leadership." It was a humiliating acknowledgement of what Democrat Tom Kaine crowed shortly after, that Rush Limbaugh "is the leading force behind the Republican Party."
Ideological movements need people like Rush Limbaugh to convey beliefs in engaging and simplified ways – something he is particularly skilled at doing. But if conservatism is to retain any semblance of intellectual depth, the seriousness and reasoned consistency necessary to transform it again into a broad, majoritarian movement, conservatives must vocally reject any notion that Rush Limbaugh is a prominent or serious leader.
Looking to a man who refers to opposition leaders as "Dingy Harry" and "Barack the Magic Negro" conveys all the sobriety and profundity of "Joe the Plumber." It’s entertaining, but hardly the stuff of movements.
The problem is, as a friend and fan of Rush Limbaugh told me this morning, "There’s nothing else out there" for conservatives.
If conservatives want to be taken seriously again, we must look to a new generation of leaders who understand the movement’s present vacuity and have the intellectual seriousness, capacity and honesty to redefine it – energetic reformers like Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan and Arizona’s Jeff Flake.
But to get there, we’ll need to take an important first step: Turn off the radio.
Jim Burkee is an associate professor of history at Concordia University Wisconsin. He challenged Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Menomonee Falls) in the 2008 Republican primary.