Yesterday, I attended AEI's event commemorating one year since William F. Buckley's death. It featured a panel discussion between National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru, Charles Kesler of the Claremont Review of Books, and AEI's outgoing president, Chris DeMuth, about the future of conservatism. (The subject never gets old!) The institute's incoming president, 44-year-old Arthur C. Brooks, moderated the panel somewhat nervously--constantly pumping his legs and arms up and down in his seat like an anxious child.
The discussion was fascinating--lots of virtuoso Buckley quotes, meditations on the nature of the State and Man, exhortations to oppose Obama's budget because We Are Met At Armageddon, etc. But the most interesting thing about it was the shadow Rush Limbaugh cast on the room.
Not due to his presence, of course. (Bill Kristol was the only recognizable red-faced ideological archon in the audience.) But when it came time for questions, several audience members begged the panelists to address Limbaugh's role as the de-facto head of the Republican Party--the most eccentric of them referring to him as a "fat blabbermouth who sounds like an East European gangster."
No one took the bait. This wasn't just politesse--Ponnuru, who as a conservative reformer might be expected to say a few things about Rush's recent jeremiads against new ideas and outreach to moderates--delicately defended Rush the first time and simply clammed up during the subsequent questions. When a fellow from the New America Foundation asked the panelists about Rush's role within The Movement, Kesler looked at Ponnuru and asked, "You want to take it?" DeMuth then joked about skipping the query entirely, saying: "The answer is yes, we agree with you. What's the next question?"
Finally, Kesler let on that Rush is far better equipped to "instruct and entertain" than lead the movement, saying that "it's bad if Rush is the tip of the spear." But it was difficult to escape the feeling that even in a Washington think-tank, surrounded by conservative men of ideas, the three panelists were scared of the talk-show host's retribution.