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Posted by on Mar 3, 2009 in Media, Politics, Society | 5 comments

In Search of the Leader of the GOP

I grew up in Michigan, about sixty miles from the Canadian border. Our local cable system offered (and still does) the closest Canadian television station: Channel 9, a CBC affiliate in Windsor, Ontario.

Beginning in high school and through college and even today, whenever I am home in Michigan, I turned on the CBC to catch their two nightly news programs: The National and The Journal. (I especially loved the Journal with the late Barbara Frum, the mother of conservative writer David Frum.)

It was by watching these two programs that I learned about our neighbors to the North and especially how their political parties operate. Since Canada has a parliamentary system, the leader of a political party is determined by a vote at a party convention. If the leader’s party gets the most seats in Parliament, then said leader becomes the Prime Minister.

So, let’s take Stephen Harper, the current Canadian Prime Minister. Harper is the head of the Conservative Party of Canada. The Conservative Party had a convention where several people placed their hats in the ring to run for the leadership of the party. Stephen Harper came out on top.

When a party is not in power, then the leader of that party, again someone who has been elected, is the effective spokesperson for the party. When someone wants to talk to someone about an important issue, then it is the party leader that speaks. So, the Liberal Party, the second largest party, is led by Michael Ignatieff and he is not simply a talking head, but the real leader who sets policy and is the Prime Minister-in-waiting, if the current Prime Minister doesn’t work out with the nation.

The reason behind this civics lesson on Canadian politics is to put this whole Rush Limbaugh/Michael Steele fight in perspective. Bloggers, pundits and commentators on the left and the right are talking about this dust up, as well as Limbaugh’s speech at CPAC as if Limbaugh had been selected as the leader of the GOP.

But as Jay Cost has noted, Rush isn’t the head of the GOP. And neither for that matter is Michael Steele. American politics is different from Canadian politics and we need to remember that as we deal with the rotund radio announcer.

Here is what Cost notes about the power of Rush:

Per my column yesterday, I’d argue that Rush Limbaugh is not the “leader” of the Republican Party. Limbaugh is a radio talk show host – a very important one who has 15 million listeners a week. But we’re talking about a political party, and therefore electoral politics, which is a mass phenomenon. Limbaugh has influence in the party – that’s for sure – but he is not the leader. Contrary to Reihan Salam’s suggestion, he cannot remake the “Party of Lincoln” into the “Party of Limbaugh,” nor does he have the power to define the image of the party for the mass public.

That has not stopped people from acting like he has the power to shape its image. So, if he isn’t the “leader of the party” even figuratively, then who is? Cost explains:

The next question is: who is looking out for the interests of the whole party? The answer: nobody. The title is actually a trick question. American political parties do not really have leaders, except when they temporarily control the White House (and even then, the President is still looking out for his own political interests, so there still can be conflict; plus his coercive power over fellow partisans is mostly informal). There is no permanent position or organization that makes sure that candidates behave responsibly, i.e. in a way that is consistent with the overall goal of the party (which is to take control of the government).

Cost goes on to say that in reality it is the candidates for office that are the ones who have the power in the party.

As somebody who supports “responsible party government,” I see this as a huge problem. Without a centralizing authority that can discipline candidates, you’re bound to find instances of the problem of collective action: the whole party wants to win control of the government, candidates want to win their own elections – frequently these goals can conflict, yet there is no way for the party to coerce candidates to do what is good for the party. We discussed this last week when we noted what a pantload Jim Bunning is, yet the party lacks a way to deal with him effectively.

Ultimately, candidates are in control. There is no entity – be it an organization or person – that really has the power to make sure they behave in a way that is responsible to the broader agenda party. It just does not exist. The actions of the party are frequently just the sum total of these individual schemes. There is no institutionalized position of leadership, in the sense that we traditionally think of one.

So, why do we all act as if Rush had been voted on as head of the GOP?

In my own opinion, it has to do with the chaos facing the Republican party at this time, as well as the Democrats trying to frame the issue.

The GOP is in the wilderness trying to figure out its next steps. Part of the issue here that many reformers like David Frum and David Brooks have rightly pointed out is that the party needs to change its message and be more open to new ideas; something that Rush is against. But Rush isn’t the problem as much as he is the symptom. His speech last week caught the mood of many movement conservatives. His sentiment, which seemed sneering towards any dissent or hint of intellectualism, is shared by many in the GOP today.

The problem didn’t just arise one day; this has been a problem for quiet some time. Rush puts a face on this issue (and it is not a pretty face). And that’s the point: Rush Limbaugh is not the leader of the Republican Party for the reasons stated earlier- we don’t have a system like Canada does. Our political parties are more freewheeling and basically leaderless.

That said, while Limbaugh is not the leader of the party, he is a face of the party, a face of what the party represents to some people. What a lot of people are finally waking up to is that Rush is the face of many in the modern GOP.

In this short attention span, PR-driven age, Rush is the billboard of a significant part of the GOP: the angry base.

But there is good news here. If Rush isn’t the leader of the Republicans, but a face, an image, that means that there is a chance to change the message. That means there are other people who have stature among conservatives, that can present an alternative view. While Michael Steele isn’t any more the leader of the GOP than Rush, he also can present an alternative face of the GOP. What was frustrating about his apology to Rush, wasn’t that he realized who the true leader was, but that he failed to stand up for his articulation of the Republican Party. People don’t need to stand up to Rush as much they need to be able to present another face of the party, to share the feelings of many conservatives in this country who don’t share the angry views of some on the Right.

In this American political party, where there is no one leader, those of us who present a more civilized conservatism, have an opportunity to make some “face time” with the American people. We don’t need to confront Rush, as much as counter his message.

There is no leader of the GOP and in trying to answer the question of, “Who’s in charge?” we waste time in countering the message of Rush, the face of Rush with a more inclusive face.