A slightly sickening GOP spectacle

March 05, 2009|By JEAN MARBELLA

I suppose I should just get it out of the way and apologize to Rush Limbaugh right off the bat, but who knows how long the line to do that is at this point?

Has there ever been anyone who has taken umbrage-taking to such hyperventilating heights? And has there ever been a group of people - Republican National Chairman Michael Steele being only the latest - who can't beat a path fast enough or prostrate themselves low enough to beg forgiveness for incurring such easily incurred wrath?

I know I should avert my eyes, but I can't help watching this horrifying spectacle, this emotional hostage-taking, that's going on between the GOP and the popular, powerful talk show king. It's the ultimate bad relationship, all neediness and desperation, what with the party beholden to the conservative talker and his ever-present threat that if Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy.

The latest unhappiness to befall the House of Rush is, of course, Steele's heart-clutching, get-the-smelling-salts notion that Limbaugh is an "entertainer" who says "incendiary" things on a show that can get "ugly." Once he was revived and helped up from the fainting couch, Limbaugh took up the challenge and defended his, what? His honor? His dignity? His inalienable right never to be treated with anything less than utter, unquestioning fealty?

In what amounted to a public humiliation, Limbaugh basically told Steele that he wasn't the boss of him, or the party either, and that he needed to work behind the scenes and get off-stage because he wasn't much good out there anyway.

It was a slightly sickening spectacle: A powerful white man publicly taking a black man down a peg in such an outsized way for so minor a slight. There was the dripping disdain by which Limbaugh informed Steele that he was not the head of the Republican Party - never mind that the party leadership elected him to that post - followed by the entirely contradictory suggestion that he quit now in shame for the party's failure.

That makes a lot of sense: He's not in charge, but he's to blame.

But that's just Rush being Rush. Anyone who still manages to get outraged by what he says hasn't figured out that that's his schtick, that's what he gets paid hundreds of millions of dollars to do on 600 radio stations. But what possibly explains Steele responding by crawling over that well-worn path of humbled Republicans to apologize to Mighty Mouth?

If Steele's election as head of the GOP national committee was meant to signal that it's not just the party of white Southerners, well, I can only think of two words: epic failure. Have one of the party's very few black leaders acquiesce to his own demeaning? Now there's an interesting strategy - and one that makes me anticipate even more breathlessly the "urban-suburban hip-hop" initiatives that Steele has also promised.

Already, it looks as if it might be time to start a Steele death watch. In taking on but instantly backing off Limbaugh, he has managed quite a lose-lose proposition: He angered the GOP base that considers Limbaugh its spokesman, and takes any insult of him as an insult of them, and his apology surely smoothed nothing over. Meanwhile, he disappointed those who were initially glad to see someone tugging on Superman's cape by then turning tail and saying he didn't mean it. The whisper campaign has started - the big story on Politico yesterday was about GOP leaders having second, albeit anonymous, thoughts about Steele as party chair.

However this drama plays out, it's hard to imagine a good resolution. Limbaugh commands 20 million listeners a week, so, yes, he merits some of the kid-glove treatment that he demands. But by the same token, those listeners - who according to audience data are largely older, white, male and conservative and thus overlap closely with the GOP base - aren't enough to swing an election, as November's results showed.

So it seems self-defeating to concede to Limbaugh such an off-with-their-heads role when it comes to who can and can't speak for Republicans. It's not just Steele he's denounced lately - did you hear him lace into those in the party who criticized Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's sing-songy response to President Barack Obama's address to Congress? "Those of you who think Jindal was horrible ... I don't ever want to hear from you ever again."

Ohhhh-kay. There's something unseemly about a big success like Limbaugh being so sensitive to any criticism, any disagreement. The big talk, the thin skin. The delight in saying rude, obnoxious things, but then when called out, the whining about being taken out of context. (Witness the unconvincing parsing that followed his statement that he hopes Obama fails, or his denunciation of "phony soldiers" who favored withdrawing from Iraq.)

Sounds like someone can dish it out but can't take it. Boo-hoo.

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