THE LINE REPUBLICANS CAN’T CROSS…. On Monday, Rush Limbaugh took a few shots at Republican leaders in Congress, saying they’re not doing enough to “frighten” President Obama. Yesterday, Rep. Phil Gingrey (R) defended the party leadership, and dismissed the right-wing talk-show host for finding it “easy” to “throw bricks” from the outside.

Gingrey added that Limbaugh and others like him “don’t have to try to do what’s best for your people and your party. You know you’re just on these talk shows and you’re living well and plus you stir up a bit of controversy and gin the base and that sort of that thing. But when it comes to true leadership, not that these people couldn’t be or wouldn’t be good leaders, they’re not in that position of John Boehner or Mitch McConnell.”

And just how long did it take before Gingrey was forced to back down and grovel for forgiveness after saying something sensible? About a half-day.

Turns out that Gingrey’s measured remarks provoked such a violent outcry that he has now been forced to apologize.

“Because of the high volume of phone calls and correspondence received by my office since the Politico article ran, I wanted to take a moment to speak directly to grassroots conservatives,” Gingrey said in a new statement released by his office. “Let me assure you, I am one of you.”

“I never told Rush to back off,” Gingrey continued. “I regret and apologize for the fact that my comments have offended and upset my fellow conservatives — that was not my intent … Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Newt Gingrich, and other conservative giants are the voices of the conservative movement’s conscience.”

Gingrey went on to say, “I see eye-to-eye with Rush Limbaugh,” adding that he’s among millions of Americans “inspired” by Limbaugh.

Note, Gingrey hadn’t said anything especially controversial yesterday. It is easy for political observers on the outside to criticize, as compared to keeping a party together. But Gingrey not only faced a swift rebuke for daring to question Leader Limbaugh, but apologized, in writing, and in an embarrassingly meek tone.

The Republican Party is suffering something of a leadership vacuum. It’s pretty obvious who’s calling the shots.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.