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Grand ‘Old’ Party

The main stage backdrop at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference couldn’t have been more fitting. It featured Ronald Reagan, born in 1911; William Buckley, born in 1925; Jesse Helms, born in 1921; and Barry Goldwater, born in 1909 — an ideal assortment for a movement hell-bent on living in the past.

But these heroes’ reactionary playbook didn’t play so well in 2012, and demographic changes are proving a tough hurdle to overcome. The very same social issues that propped up Republicans in the ’00s, like opposition to marriage equality, are now contributing to the party’s decline. An electoral strategy built on stoking racial resentment is proving unhelpful as our nation quickly diversifies. And the GOP’s nihilist approach to government is at odds with popular sentiment, particularly at a time of economic distress.

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So Republicans have to do something, and to that end, they commissioned a supposedly honest look at the root cause of their failures. Surprisingly, the report isn’t all bad, because among its myriad recommendations is this doozy: “The Republican Party needs to stop talking to itself. 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.”

In other words, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News are bad for the Republican Party.

And that is undoubtedly correct. As Pew has shown, 81 percent of staunch conservatives watch Fox News at least occasionally, a nearly incomprehensible level of reach for the conservative outlet. Limbaugh claims tens of millions of weekly listeners. And despite having built a far-reaching right-wing media borg spanning from AM radio to cable news to the Internet, conservatives continue to expand that machine. Newish conservative publications like Breitbart and the Tea Party News Network exist because of a belief that even Fox News is too liberal. Thus, you have a race to the ideological margin, as an increasingly agitated conservative core purges itself of any dissenting thought, or even ideological gradations.

The Republican National Committee might think that this is a problem, but the hard-core base of the party doesn’t. And that means nothing is going to change. CPAC refused to allow gay Republican groups to attend, while also excluding New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — the one Republican who might make 2016 interesting. Conference organizers argued Christie isn’t the future of the party, but at the same time they featured washed-up ex-stars like Sarah Palin, Donald Trump and Newt Gingrich.

Meanwhile, arch-conservative Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss was forced into early retirement by his party’s extremists — not because of his ideology, but because he wasn’t belligerent enough. As a result, a Republican seat that ought to be safe will now offer Democrats another opportunity to run against a Todd Akin or Richard Mourdock clone.

Limbaugh dismissed the RNC’s post-mortem with expected derision: “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.” Given that the GOP thoroughly convinced itself last year that Mitt Romney was headed toward a landslide victory, a lack of confidence probably isn’t their problem.

So the extremists keep dictating the GOP agenda, the conservative media keeps cheering them on, and nothing will change as the RNC mandarins keep ineffectually wringing their hands.

Moulitsas is the publisher and founder of Daily Kos (dailykos.com).