President Barack Obama's aides Rahm Emanuel and Robert Gibbs knew what they were doing when they declared Rush Limbaugh the leader of the Republican opposition. They were putting Republican politicians in a trap. Repudiating Limbaugh would mean alienating millions of conservatives and declaring Limbaugh's plainspoken conservatism which many of those politicians share outside the lines of the national debate. But neither could Republicans allow the insinuation that they take orders from a radio-host stand. If voters got that impression, they would look weak. Worse, the polls show more people dislike Limbaugh than like him.
The Republicans escaped this trap by saying that the White House was talking about Limbaugh in order to avoid talking about Obama's failure to come up with a financial-rescue plan. But now one Limbaugh controversy has been replaced by another. Instead of squabbling with Democrats about him, Republicans are arguing with one another. The subject of the dispute: Does Limbaugh help spread conservatism among Americans or turn them off from it?
Some conservatives have always winced at Limbaugh's in-your-face style. But the debate today has a special charge because, like the similar debate over Alaska Governor Sarah Palin a few months ago, it is tied up with questions about the future of the Republican Party.
In one camp there are those who believe the Republican Party must modernize its message to account for changing circumstances. The columnist David Brooks has called these people the "reformers." Against them are the "traditionalists," who believe that Republicans need only recommit themselves to Ronald Reagan's agenda to succeed again.
The traditionalists push for upper-income tax cuts. The reformers want to cut the payroll taxes paid by the middle class. Traditionalists often deny that global warming is real. Reformers just want to make sure that our answer to it is cost-effective. Traditionalists want to hold the line on government spending. Reformers think it's more important for Republicans to advocate market-friendly solutions to problems such as rising health-care costs and traffic congestion.
Limbaugh, needless to say, is a traditionalist, and some reformers have become fierce critics. The debate has gotten pretty hot over the past two weeks, with those critics going after Limbaugh's girth and his outraged fans accusing them of being closet liberals.