The impression that is emerging in the minds of voters is that Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh are running the Republican party—not in terms of electoral politics, but in leadership terms. Nothing could please the Obama people more than being attacked in the media by a former vice president adamantly defending “enhanced interrogation methods” or being castigated daily on the radio by Rush Limbaugh. Such a hypothetical Republican ticket represents at best 25% of the electorate. If you are Democratic National Committee president Tim Kaine, with less than two years to go before the mid-term elections, you cannot ask for a better portrait of the current Republican leadership than Cheney-Limbaugh.
Cheney’s media tour, undertaken under the guise of talking about the lives that were saved by the Bush administration’s policies, has overshadowed legitimate policy differences between the GOP and the Democrats. This comes at a crucial moment, too: the budget’s details are emerging and Obama will soon be proposing a nominee for the Supreme Court. The ongoing sideshow over what Nancy Pelosi knew about torture has only brought greater spotlight on the issue itself. We now know that the torture began six months before the memos that authorized it were written. There is increasing evidence that laws were broken, that the constitution was violated and, possibly, that war crimes were committed. Moreover, FBI interrogators and infiltrators have testified before a congressional subcommittee to argue that torture does not work. And yet, Cheney and his daughter are claiming that America is less safe under the Obama presidency—a serious charge that cannot go unchallenged. The defense secretary under both Bush and Obama, Robert Gates, strongly disputes this claim, as does defense hawk and McCain supporter, Democratic senator Joe Lieberman. If Cheney wants a debate on torture, to borrow a favourite phrase of George W. Bush’s, “bring it on.”
Limbaugh started the fireworks by wishing that Obama fails and has since silenced any Republican who dares agree with an Obama-Biden policy decision. And he has made a list of the GOP personalities he wishes would leave the party—McCain, Specter, Powell, and there are surely more to come. However, radio ratings are one thing, electoral appeal is another. And ol’ Rush has very little of the former. Except, of course, that he can now boast of having the support of Dick Cheney, who left office with a 20% approval rating.
Meanwhile, the Republicans trudge on. However, how can they overcome the media-friendly combination of Cheney and Limbaugh? To make matters worse, Sarah Palin, a celebrity in her own right, will now pen a book. Outside of the evangelical right, who cares? Where is Mitt Romney, the only credible economic spokesperson among the GOP, while the economy is still struggling? What about legitimate conservative republicans like Mark Sanford, Bobby Jindal, Tim Pawlenty, and Paul Ryan? And what about moderates like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Ridge, and Charles Crist of Florida, all of whom are suddenly marginal figures in any Republican revival. Even Newt Gringrich, who is always great for a news clip, is unable to get any traction in policy areas where he can legitimately make a contribution. RNC chairman Michael Steele, a promising choice at first, has since become an embarrassing one in no small part due to his clash with Rush Limbaugh.
A few days ago, I wrote about what I would do “if I were a Republican.” American democracy, I wrote, is better off with a healthy two party system. But with a media-generated ticket like Cheney-Limbaugh, it is close to impossible for the Republican party to get its bearings straight. The Republican party will not disappear, nor will it be marginal for very long. But, at the moment, it is failing to play its role of loyal opposition at a crucial time in history. Respected Republican pundits like David Brooks and George Will must speak up—and do it loudly. A Cheney-Limbaugh Republican ticket? Right now, they’re acting like Obama’s best allies, however unwittingly they’re going about it.