Rush Limbaugh made a startling admission on Wednesday, in the course of discussing the staying power of Donald Trump and the value of the Sarah Palin endorsement: "It's now out in the open that the Republican conservative base is not monolithically conservative ... that's not the glue that unites them all."
The proof of that is Trump: "If conservatism were the glue ... then Trump would have no chance. He literally would have no chance. Because, whatever he is he's not and never has been known as a doctrinaire conservative."
If it's not philosophical belief and positive ideas, then what is the glue? Per Rush, it is "united, virulent opposition to the left and the Democrat Party and Barack Obama."
In other words, they know what they hate, but not what they like.
That would explain why the Republican debates have been so bereft of policy ideas and discussion, but loaded with broadsides against President Obama (and Hillary Clinton). If the base doesn't know what it wants, and doesn't even agree on the direction in which to go, then proposing detailed plans isn't going to get you very far.
The fault of a rudderless base should not fall on the individual voters. Parties lead. Parties develop policy ideas and hammer out platforms. It's the job of the parties to build an agenda based on philosophical principle and rally supporters around it.
This Republican Party wasted its time in the minority wilderness of the Obama years. Sure, it could win low-turnout backlash elections in the midterm years with simple hatred of Obama. "Repeal Obamacare" is easier to say than an actual alternative approach to expanding coverage and restraining cost.
But without a real set of ideas that go beyond bumper stickers and Reagan-era rehash, a party is vulnerable to being hijacked by a demagogue who shows no fealty to policy principles – only to whatever will keep him in the news for the next 24 hours.
I am not one to assume the entire Republican Party is represented by those in the "base" to which Rush is referring. The noisiest voices on the right usually fall short – by miles – of dictating the Republican Party nominee.
But there is no question that the Know-Nothing faction of the party's base has shaped the party's image and framed the intraparty debate – to the party's detriment according to the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
Limbaugh's candor is a sad commentary on conservatism. For a long time liberalism was the ideology that its adherents and sympathizers were uncomfortable acknowledging. Today, it is conservatism that is proving so weak it cannot hold its party together.