For sheer popcorn-entertainment value, nothing beats the current spectacle of Republican supplicants quaking at the feet of their master, Rush Limbaugh. And nothing better illustrates the sorry state of the minority party than this abject ritual.
Michael Steele, fresh from winning the GOP chairmanship on the wing of a promise to expand the party's appeal, has vividly demonstrated over the past few days that he is the leader in name only, and that while outreach might be a fine idea in theory, it is way more important to knuckle under and pander to the Pied Piper of the right...because it is really the intermittently coherent Limbaugh who runs the show, frames the dialogue, and ensures that the GOP stays hostage to roughly 25 percent of the electorate.
You might recall what happened five weeks ago when a Georgia Republican congressman, Phil Gingrey, had the temerity to lash out at Limbaugh. The talk show titan had been assailing the GOP congressional leaders, and Gingrey didn't like it. So he complained publicly how "easy" it is to be Limbaugh, "to stand back and throw bricks. You don't have to try to do what's best for your people and your party. You know you're just on these talk shows and you're living well and plus you stir up a bit of controversy and gin the base and that sort of thing."
But after Limbaugh fired back and Limbaugh fans chimed in, Gingrey quickly entered a reeducation camp and emerged fully rehabilitated: "I see eye-to-eye with Rush Limbaugh...I regret and apologize for the fact that my comments have offended...that was not my intent...I recognize it is my responsibility to clarify my own comments."
Now comes Michael Steele, who has symbolically diminished his own authority by daring to diss Limbaugh over the weekend, only to bow at the knee by Monday evening. Remember the scene in that Star Wars movie, Return of the Jedi, where Princess Leia is forced to wear an ersatz bikini and appear in chains at the feet of Jabba the Hutt? Steele did her one better. He stripped down and put the chains on all by himself.
Steele at first said on television that Limbaugh's rhetoric was "ugly" and "incendiary," and that Limbaugh was merely an "entertainer." That triggered a lengthy on-air outburst from Limbaugh yesterday afternoon ("I would be embarrassed to say that I'm in charge of the Republican party in the sad-sack state that it's in"), and at first there was silence from Republican headquarters. But by evening, Steele realized that he had to abase himself with the base (how foolish of him to dare articulate what centrist Americans think about Limbaugh), and of course this meant that he had to apologize to his overlord.
So he publicly declared: "My intent was not to go after Rush - I have enormous respect for Rush Limbaugh. I was maybe a little bit inarticulate....There was no attempt on my part to diminish his voice or his leadership...I went back at that tape and I realized words that I said weren't what I was thinking. It was one of those things where I thinking I was saying one thing, and it came out differently."
Maybe Steele had no choice; after all, he badly needs the conservative donors these days, because hardly anybody else seems anxious to give money to the Republicans. But bowing to Limbaugh is akin to ceding the center, hardly a prudent long-term political strategy.
The Obama White House obviously has a vested political interest in painting Limbaugh as the face of the Republican party, and Rahm Emanuel spun the argument on one of the Sunday chat shows. But why should the Democrats even bother, when the GOP seems so eager to send the message for real?
Following up on my post yesterday about Iraq...
Last week, at the Free Library of Philadelphia, I hosted Charles Duelfer, the weapons inspector who led the CIA-sponsored, post-invasion search for Iraqi WMDs in 2004. His 2004 report, which bears his name, concluded that Saddam Hussein had possessed no WMDs at the time of President Bush's invasion. He elaborates on the topic at length in his new book, Hide and Seek.
On stage, we engaged in a lengthy Q &A conversation. Duelfer said he believes that Hussein was a legitimate threat to his region and that Bush "made a defensible strategic decision" to remove him. However, Duelfer also said that "every step" of the Bush team's occupation strategy "was miscountrued, misconceived, and done very badly...This is a story with no heroes."
Here are just a few exchanges (the entire event can be heard in a Free Library podcast):
I noted that in Duelfer's book, he assailed Bush's occupation bureaucrats as monumentally clueless. In Duelfer's words, "ignorance about your own ignorance, to the point of wilfull ignorance, is the costliest error of all." I then asked Duelfer whether, given what he knows today, he thinks the war was worth it.
Duelfer: "The objective of displacing Saddam I found to be a rational, logical objective. The difference of what Iraq could be (as a democracy), and what it was under Saddam, was enormous....I have come away with an opinion that the talents and capabilities of our government to do things (effectively) are getting progressively smaller....We can create new bureaucracies...or we can blow things up....Of those tools that we have, the one that has gotten better is our ability to blow things up.
"Changing the government is inherently a political activity, not a military activity....It was just mind-numbing to me that we could make the enormous mistakes that we did. It's astonishing. If you can't run Washington, how on earth are you going to run Iraq? It was like the Sunnis and Shiias. The Pentagon would spit every time it talked about the State Department, the civilian leadership at the Pentagon didn't trust the CIA....They wouldn't talk to one another, they hated each other, it was bizarre, it was the most bizarre thing I've seen in government...If our new president decides he wants to do something (similar), he'd better want to do it very very badly, because it will probably be done very very badly."
I asked whether he feels that the ineptitude was attributable to our frequent inability as Americans to understand other cultures, or whether the Bush administration - and its particular ideology - deserved the brunt of the blame.
Duelfer: "There were a number of (damaging) things that occurred in both the Clinton and Bush administrations. There were some uniquely ignorant decisions made by the Bush administration, however. The decision for managing what is manifestly a political activity - changing regimes - was placed in the Pentagon, the civilian leadership. These were people who did not have any direct experience with living, breathing Iraqis - only with those who had come to Washington as lobbyists. (The Pentagon civilians working for Donald Rumsfeld) had a very limited mindset about what was real on the ground. They made two cataclysmic errors (purging the government of all Ba'athist party members, and disbanding the army)...It was like telling everybody with a gun that (America) was the enemy. The ignorance of those decisions was astonishing. This (regime change) could have been done much easier and with much less cost. My view is that we are today not in a bad position in Iraq, but it's a position we should have been in four years ago - four years ago, thousands of lives (ago) - both Americans and Iraqis - and tens of billions of dollars."
Given how Duelfer views conditions in Iraq today, I then asked whether he supports President Obama's 19-month Iraq withdrawal timetable.
Duelfer: "I think that's manageable....What we did, by getting rid of Saddam, was that we took the gravity out of Iraq - and all that was left was centrifugal forces....Saddam kept Iraq together by being a very, very strong center. He was a very smart guy. He understood the nuances of the various aspects of Iraqi society, and he kept it together. So we come in...and had the effect of fractioning the government....
"We have, in the process of this social science experiment, come to the conclusion that we have to keep the center strong....We have now gotten to a point where I think there is a strong center. I think these (recent) elections were a success. (Prime Minister) Maliki, who I had a very low opinion of, does seem to have managed the Parliament and the process (to the point) where there is a stake in keeping a central government intact. But as we draw down over the next 19 months in military forces, there will be some testing," with respect to how Maliki treats the Sunnis, for instance. "Short answer is, I think 19 months is a reasonable approach, but there are some real pitfalls to be watched."
Much later, there was this question from a member of the audience: "If what we know how to do is blow things up, and spend what is essentially Chinese money, then make me feel comfortable about Afghanistan."
Duelfer (while sharing his pessimism about Afghanistan): "I have such a tendency to be a wiseass, and it gets me in trouble. But if you want to, take some of their product, and I think you'll feel much happier." (Audience laughter.)