Who would have predicted, even as recently as a year ago, that by the last year of George W. Bush's presidency, conservatives would be caught up in an identity crisis? The success of Sen. John McCain, and the continuing resistance he faces as he closes in on the Republican presidential nomination, reflect this crisis. For months - years, actually - McCain has been denounced for bucking Republican orthodoxy.
Who would have predicted, even as recently as a year ago, that by the last year of George W. Bush's presidency, conservatives would be caught up in an identity crisis?
The success of Sen. John McCain, and the continuing resistance he faces as he closes in on the Republican presidential nomination, reflect this crisis. For months - years, actually - McCain has been denounced for bucking Republican orthodoxy.
The condemnations of talk-radio and cable TV commentators have been especially strong. McCain's not conservative enough, say some. He's not conservative at all, say others. Boston radio personality Jay Severin actually denounces him as a dreaded "liberal" - just like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
But consider how organizations that have been defining conservatism for decades rate McCain. The National Taxpayers Union gives him an "A." Citizens Against Government Waste calls him a "taxpayer's hero." McCain scores 82 percent from the Americans for Tax Reform. The American Conservative Union gives him a 65 percent which, while not the top of the class, puts him way ahead of Obama and Clinton, who weigh in at 8 percent.
These rankings are based on traditional definitions of conservatism, tests McCain seems to meet. He's always been against abortion. He supports conservative judicial nominees. He's for a strong defense, for smaller government, for cutting wasteful federal spending.
Are those things no longer conservative? Should the organizations that measure conservative records throw out their measuring sticks?
Yes, McCain has angered people who call themselves conservatives. But a closer look at their specific grievances shows their differences with McCain to be more political than ideological:
U McCain fought for campaign finance reform. But while there are debatable concerns about the free speech rights of issues advocacy organizations, the fiercest resentment over McCain-Feingold came from lobbyists and GOP insiders who saw it as a threat to the "soft money" fundraising advantage the Republicans had over the Democrats.
U As a former POW tortured by the North Vietnamese, McCain had personal reasons to prohibit its use by U.S. troops, but most of the uniformed military agreed with him. It is McCain's opposition to the Bush administration that bothered his critics, not some previously unrecognized conservative principle that embraces torture.
U McCain has been tough on spending, earmarks, tax loopholes and corporate giveaways, which would seem to be conservative. But those positions were resented by lobbyists and Republican leaders, such as Tom DeLay, allied with them.
U McCain favored comprehensive immigration reform, along the lines traditionally supported by business-minded conservatives. His plan was supported by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a conservative president, George W. Bush. But the "conservative" position shifted to a seal-the-borders-only approach.
It is Bush, more than McCain, who is responsible for the conservatives' identity crisis. He sought the White House as a "compassionate conservative," which muddied the waters from the start. He proposed big-government programs in education and health care. He boosted federal spending, expanded executive powers and engaged in nation-building overseas, all of which broke from various conservative orthodoxies. But Bush has defined himself as a conservative and demanded conservatives support him on policies they'd likely oppose if they were coming from a Democrat.
If he can unite the party and win the White House, McCain will have earned the right to define conservatism on his terms. But that might not solve the larger problem facing the conservative movement.
As David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter, argues in a new book that Bush's least conservative programs have been the most popular. The issues that fueled the modern conservative movement - the cold war, crime, welfare, taxes, government regulation - don't pack the punch they used to.
The real crisis for the conservatives may not be that they don't like the presumptive Republican nominee. It's that the conservative movement, which has helped drive American politics since 1964, is running out of gas.