Entry from August 3, 2008

As Rush Limbaugh celebrates his 20th anniversary as host of his nationally syndicated radio show, I think back 15 years to NR’s cover story of September 6, 1993, which I wrote, titled “Leader of the Opposition.” The title was not mine. John O’Sullivan, then the editor of the magazine, had learned both journalism in politics in his native Britain, and it struck him — in the dog days of Bill Clinton’s first term when Democrats were in control of the White House and both houses of Congress and the Republicans in Congress were timid and ineffective — that Rush was the one person on the national scene who came closest to occupying the position of the head of the minority party in Parliament, who in Britain would have been distinguished by that official title.

Since then a lot has happened. A little over a year later, Newt Gingrich led the Republicans into the pivotal election of 1994 which resulted in the G.O.P’s winning a majority in the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. Everyone acknowledged the vital role Rush had played in formulating and promoting the “Contract with America” that the Gingrich forces had run on, and he was made an honorary member of the freshman Republican class of 1995. Now, however, it was Newt who was the undisputed Leader of the Opposition. Indeed, at times he seemed more like the prime minister to an electorally weakened head of state of the opposite party — a situation which often arises in France, a country that attempts to combine the American strong executive, independent of the legislature, with a parliamentary system on the British model.

After Newt left government following the elections of 1998, the opposition turned for leadership to George W. Bush, just re-elected Governor of Texas with an overwhelming majority. But “W” sought to distance himself from both “Washington” and the House G.O.P. by Clinton-style “triangulation,” accusing his fellow Republicans in the name of his signature “compassionate conservatism” of trying to “balance their budget on the backs of the poor.” The conservative wing of the party might have coalesced into some kind of opposition after he was elected president in 2000. But 9/11 intervened and Rush, like so many other conservatives, found it incumbent on himself to defend his president against the increasingly strident attacks of the left, in spite of what might otherwise have emerged as fundamental differences from him.

After the loss of the Republican congressional majority in 2006, Rush declared his independence from the current leadership of his party. “I like President Bush,” he told Zev Chafets of The New York Times Magazine last month, “but he is not a conservative. He is conservative on some things, but he has not led a movement as Reagan did every day of his career. Bush’s unpopularity is due primarily to his reluctance to publicly defend himself and his administration against attacks from the left. . . . The country has not tilted to the left in my view. What has been absent is elected conservative leadership from the White House down to the Congress.” That seems unlikely to change now that John McCain is the presumptive Republican presidential nominee and Republicans in Congress are going into the November elections in the expectation of even more serious losses.

And that means that, whatever happens in November, Rush is now well-placed, 15 years later, to resume the role of Leader of the Opposition. There is no dominant Republican or conservative spokesman on the horizon who could come close to him as foil to a President Obama, while a President McCain, owing little or nothing to conservatives for his nomination and election, would be sure to consider himself free to follow his more liberal instincts as and when it might seem appropriate to him. Either way, conservatives will need a leader with a strong voice in the national dialogue, and Rush has already shown that he can play that role.

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