Grappling for leadership

I remember sprinting into the kitchen to report on the horrifying neck injury that then-WWF champion Bob Backlund had apparently suffered. My grandfather reassured me that the drama was mere entertainment, and he was right, of course. Backlund wasn’t really injured, and retired in good enough shape to mount a congressional bid in Connecticut in 2000.

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This year, another Connecticut Republican from the world of pro wrestling, Linda McMahon, wife of promoter Vince, is challenging Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.).

But the voices dominating today’s GOP are far more ridiculous, overheated and sinister than any of the muscled actors over whom the McMahons presided. And Washington Republicans seem more willing to declare professional wrestling legit than to distance themselves from their party’s de facto leaders.

In one corner, there is President Obama, leading a serious effort to forge consensus on issues like health reform and energy independence. In the other, a tag-team of right-wing fear-mongers: radio host Rush Limbaugh, Fox News personality Glenn Beck and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Just this week, Limbaugh dubbed youth violence “a liberal problem.” Beck, who joined Rush in celebrating Chicago’s failure to win the 2016 Olympic Games, has said Obama demonstrates a “deep-seated hatred for white people.” Sarah Palin — a hero to far-right bloviators everywhere — has continued her attacks from the campaign, accusing the president of supporting a “death panel” as part of health reform. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Palin told her Facebook friends that “Glenn Beck is doing an extraordinary job” in covering the White House.

Once upon a time, there were Republicans who would act like adults when political differences took an ugly turn.

Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) did battle with President Bill Clinton over balancing the budget in the 1990s. But after several days of a government shutdown, Dole took to the Senate floor to tell his party: “Enough is enough.” Former Republican Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) was no shrinking violet in challenging Democratic policies either. But sensing the possibility for real healthcare reform, Frist said that if he were still in the Senate, “I would end up voting for it. As leader, I would take heat for it. … That’s what leadership is all about.” This summer, former first lady Laura Bush defended Obama’s back-to-school speech from opponents’ body-slams, declaring that it was “really important for everyone to respect the president of the United States.”

But aside from a few brave souls like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who admirably distanced himself from the incendiary remarks of folks like Beck, the silence from congressional Republicans has been deafening.

That’s trouble for the GOP. John McCain’s former chief strategist said this week that having Sarah Palin at the top of the ticket in 2012 “would have a catastrophic election result” for Republicans.
I’m not sure whether the rhetorical body blows from right-wing pundits represent heartfelt opposition or are merely choreographed attempts to boost ratings and sell books. But the pain they’re producing isn’t only inflicted on the public discourse.

By letting these voices stand as the undisputed champions of the loyal opposition, the GOP risks becoming the Palin Party. And if that happens, their political prospects will be down for the count.

Del Cecato is a partner at AKPD Message and Media, the political consulting firm founded by David Axelrod in 1985. He served as media adviser and admaker for Obama for America and Obama-Biden 2008.