He once described feminism as something invented to allow ugly women access to the mainstream.

According to the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, he once advised a black caller to his radio show: “Take that bone out of your nose and call me back.”

He once made fun of the body tremors of a man struggling with a degenerative and incurable disease of the nervous system.

Yet, when Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele described Rush Limbaugh’s radio program during a recent CNN interview as “ugly” and “incendiary,” it was Steele who was required to tender a prompt apology.

People keep asking, in the wake of two consecutive shellackings at the voting booth, what is wrong with the GOP. They have wrung their hands and hung their heads over Steele’s goofy attempts (“off the hook”) to bring street cred to the party of big business and social conservatism, over the way Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal seemed to channel Howdy Doody in delivering the GOP response to President Barack Obama’s speech before a joint session of Congress.

But if you want to know what ails the elephant, you need look no further than the sight of its putative leader groveling before the throne of a radio talk-show host and declaring his “enormous respect” for this “ugly” and “incendiary” fellow.

It must be crowded at the base of the throne. Steele is only the latest GOP official (Georgia Rep. Phil Gingrey and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford preceded him) to find himself offering clarifications and apologies for making the mistake of speaking honestly about the party’s bloviator in chief. It’s a sign that, for all the talk about rebranding and reinventing, the party remains too reluctant and regressive to match its words with actions. And that bodes ill for both it and the nation.

You will not believe it, but I have been rooting for the GOP. As well deserved as its recent drubbings have been, the fact is, single party governance is invariably a recipe for overreaching; the Bush years proved that inarguably. So for the sake of the checks and balances that make our system work, I would like to see the party get off the mat.

But it is hard to imagine this is how they will do it.

As many pundits and even party officials have noted, given the dramatic cultural and demographic changes under way in this country, the GOP faces a real possibility of being reduced to a regional party of limited national relevance unless it broadens its appeal beyond angry white men living primarily in the states of the old Confederacy. That being the case, why are they kissing the ring of the angry white man who broadcasts from West Palm Beach?

Why are they not in South L.A. talking about entrepreneurship? Or in the Ninth Ward bearing proposals to encourage marriage and strengthen families? Or in Liberty City offering ideas to stem the violence? Why are they not competing for the votes they say they want?

To judge from the eagerness with which they prostrate themselves before Limbaugh, the answer is troublingly simple: They fear losing the votes they have. They are unable to disenthrall themselves from that culturally intolerant, intellectually incoherent, perpetually outraged and willfully ignorant cohort of the American demographic they call their base, i.e., extreme social conservatives.

Over the years, the GOP has reliably been able to woo them by demonizing gays, people of color, Muslims, feminists and anyone else who did not fit their white picket fence fantasies. But the changes afoot in our country suggest that won’t work quite as well in the future as it has up till now. So it’s all well and good if the party feels a need to apologize.

But they’re facing the wrong way.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His e-mail address is: [email protected] Leonard Pitts will be chatting with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT on www.MiamiHerald.com.

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