The Republican Party wants to reinvent itself. The Republican National Committee's March 18 post-mortem of the 2012 election warns of a national party that "is increasingly marginalizing itself" by alienating women, Hispanics, African Americans, the youth -- basically everyone but old white people. The report prescribes a number of long-term fixes for the party, but before the GOP can even hope to implement them, they have to overcome a substantial hurdle: conservative talk radio and Rush Limbaugh. Can the Republican Party successfully undergo such a significant transformation when their most potent media platform refuses to go along?
We're already seeing friction between the party establishment and the AM dial. Not long after RNC chairman Reince Preibus unveiled his roadmap for the GOP's electoral future, President Obama formally nominated Thomas Perez for Secretary of Labor. Perez, the son of Dominican immigrants, heads up the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, and has been a key figure in the trumped-up scandal over the New Black Panthers. Reacting to the news, Rush Limbaugh drew a straight line between Perez and the "grand kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan" and also compared him to Hugo Chavez. It's not difficult to see how that bumps up against the recommendations in Preibus' report: "If we want ethnic minority voters to support Republicans, we have to engage them, and show our sincerity."
As for the RNC report itself, Limbaugh was not impressed. "The Republicans are just getting totally bamboozled right now. And they are entirely lacking in confidence. Which is what happens to every political party after an election in which they think they got shellacked," Rush said of Preibus' report, according to Salon's Alex Seitz-Wald.
The rift extends beyond messaging issues and inflammatory rhetoric. The RNC clearly views Latino voters as being of paramount strategic importance, and the committee report specifically endorses comprehensive immigration reform as a way to attract Latino votes and prevent further erosion of the party's appeal beyond its "core constituencies." That's a position Limbaugh specifically rejects. "The Republicans have bought the idea that they're never gonna win anything if they don't relax the perceived position they have on immigration," Limbaugh said in late January. He's taken it upon himself to block immigration reform on his own, if necessary. And even though Limbaugh had kind words for Sen. Marco Rubio's (R-FL) foray into immigration politics, he still stopped short of backing reform.
The irony here is that conservative talk radio played a hugely significant role in popularizing the brand of Republican politics the party leadership now views as toxic and untenable. It wouldn't come as surprise, then, that resistance to Republican rebranding efforts would filter down from Limbaugh to the rest of the conservative movement that grew up listening to his show. One need only look at the recently concluded Conservative Political Action Conference to get a sense of how the activist base will receive the RNC's proposed changes. The conservative media figures who attended the conference see a movement that's humming along nicely and effectively mobilizing the faithful. The RNC sees something very different: a party that is busily "driving around in circles on an ideological cul-de-sac." The threat posed by epistemic closure looms large in the report. "The Republican Party needs to stop talking to itself," the RNC counsels. "We have become expert in how to provide ideological reinforcement to like-minded people, but devastatingly we have lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us on every issue."
It seems likely that any effort on the part of the RNC to reshape the party that faces active opposition from talk radio is doomed to fail. After all, Rush Limbaugh remains, in the words of a former RNC chair who once made the mistake of criticizing him, "a very valuable conservative voice" for the Republican Party.