Hurting and in disarray after a devastating election -- their second in a row -- that put a Democrat in the White House and widened the opposing party's control of Congress, Republicans can now take solace in the fact that they seem to have chosen a strong figure to lead them. We refer, of course, to talk-radio rabble-rouser Rush Limbaugh ... oh, and there's also Michael Steele.
Steele, elected last week as chairman of the Republican Party, declared in his acceptance speech that it was "time for something completely different." It's hard to tell what he meant, other than that he is a different color -- Steele is the first African American to lead the Republicans. Otherwise, he's a middle-of-the-road fiscal and social conservative who hews very closely to the official party line on most issues.
That makes him a safe choice for a party that realizes it needs to change but is conflicted about how to do it. His selection will do little to broaden the party's appeal among minorities, but at least Steele, a former lieutenant governor of Maryland, demonstrates that the GOP isn't just for Southern white men, and he might be free to criticize President Obama in ways a white party leader wouldn't.
Steele also won't do anything to end the Republican identity crisis. His selection was disappointing to moderates who had hoped the party would respond to the November election by moving toward the center, just as many conservatives hoped the defeat of "maverick" John McCain would force a retrenchment toward historic Republican principles. Polls consistently show that Republicans think the party has drifted too far to the left; in a Rasmussen Reports survey released last week, a majority said Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin should serve as a future model, while only 24% favored McCain.
And that's where Limbaugh comes in. Proudly intolerant, rigidly doctrinaire, he tells many in the GOP base exactly what they want to hear, and with a weekly audience of at least 13.5 million, he has clout enjoyed by few politicians. A party that takes its marching orders from the likes of Limbaugh won't recover from its malaise any time soon. The GOP's flirtation with moderates like McCain is clearly over, at least for the moment, and most likely we'll see a return to the conservative tenets that propelled Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush to victory. That would likely solidify the party's base and clarify its core values, but it's a risky course amid changing political demographics: Young people and minorities, especially Latinos, make up a far more significant piece of the electorate today than in Reagan's years. Along with a new messenger, the GOP might consider a new message.