That's the question that the GOP primary was supposed to answer this time around, but the movement itself is still in disarray. All the in-fighting, the claiming Ronald Reagan, the out-conservatizing one another, it's all a mad power-grab at the movement's machinery.
Over these past few months, we've heard that Ronald Reagan wanted to kick all the undocumented workers out of the country, hated the gays and any pro-gay policy, cut taxes for everyone at every corner, united the country around a common vision of treading over the working America, and ended the Cold War with a stern look and a call to Mr. Gorbachev to tear this wall down.
Whether any of this is true isn't up for debate since that would mean that the Reagan arguments have something to do with Reagan. That every major constituency of the Republican party is treating Ronald Reagan and the word "conservative" as an empty vessel into which to pour their vision for America makes right now an exciting time to be an outside spectator.
Take a look, for example, at how John McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee after last night's victories, is treated by the conservatives. dday has a great round-up of McCain-hate articles all attacking him from the right. Ann Coulter says she'll campaign for Hillary against him, Michelle Malkin says she won't vote for him yet, and Dobson's saying he'll stay home if McCain gets the nod.
What gives? This is the man who has an 82% lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union and was one of the first and most prominent supporters of the escalation in Iraq. He opposes anything gay-friendly, has gone mainline Republican on every social issue out there, supports Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy, and runs a soft money operation (which would be read as a flip-flop from his campaign finance bill if we had more skeptical media).
(The only major issue that gives him any sort of maverick status is his position on immigration, and that's probably just because he has a brain and realizes that the "ship 'em out" mentality will do the GOP a whole lot worse than caving in to the neo-liberal demand for cheap labor and keeping a class of laborers in this country who don't have to be respected like American citizens do.)
Conservative James Joyner has the polling:
The most recent Rasmussen poll shows that “Romney leads by sixteen percentage points among conservatives while McCain has a two-to-one advantage among moderate Primary Voters.” Of course, Rasmussen shows Romney and McCain tied nationally, whereas Gallup and Fox show McCain leading by 20 and 28 points, respectively. Even Michelle Malkin acknowledges that the poll is “the anomaly.”
Still, that Romney is outpolling McCain among self-identified conservatives is a consistent trend. We’ve seen it time and again in the exit polls.
John Hinderaker asserts that, “as the primary season draws to a close, most conservatives are coalescing around Mitt Romney.” Bill Quick believes we are now engaged in “the War for the GOP” with the “GOP establishment attempting to remake the party in its preferred liberal-conservative image - an image in which the ‘conservative’ part is mostly window dressing for the suckers.
Which makes Joyner ask the question: has "the definition of “conservative” has become so narrow and esoteric that it’s become virtually meaningless?"
He concludes that those most vocal in the movement - O'Reilly, Coulter, Limbaugh, Savage - have been doing it damage because they aren't the real conservatives. It's people like McCain who are. He was actually part of the Reagan Revolution, and conservatives are actually, I suppose, the small-government types, not the gay-hating types.
Because we can't just argue who has the best policy, we have to argue who's the most real conservative?
Sure, the current development of McCain Derangement Syndrome (as certain conservatives are calling it) has a whole lot to do with a battle between those who've spent years whining about how horrible McCain is after he flirted with Democrats just after Bush got the nod in 2000 (Limbaugh, etc) and those who think long-term and know that Romney's flip-flopping make him both unelectable and an unknown quality (Joyner, etc).
But it's the way this is playing out that interests me. The word "conservative" isn't being too narrowly or broadly defined (well, it is both at times, but that's not the source of the problem), it's that it has varied and conflicting definitions. And instead of actually trying to prove who has the best policy, they're just arguing over who sticks most closely to that word, whatever its meaning. That's been the way that conservatives have always argued - controlling the definitions of words instead of getting into the muck that is an actual policy discussion.
What we're seeing with this McCain-hatred (as we did when Republicans hated Huck because he was the front-runner, or Rudy when he was the front-runner) is really a struggle for who controls the party, not an actual debate over who's conservative and who's not. And several key players are being forced to recognize that they never really had power in the first place, most notably the theocrats.
Sure, the GOP loves them when they can bring out voters who'll put GWB in office so that he can declare war on Iraq and the estate tax, but when they want to put a man in their own image, Mike Huckabee, in office, someone who might actually raise taxes, expand social programs, or, worse, lose the general election with the power of his sheer stupidity, they can't be given the controls to the movement machinery.
The beauty that was GWB as a candidate that wasn't in any of this year's crop was that he was able to appease big-money Republicans with policy, make neocons fawn over him with his obvious plans for imperialism, satisfy racist law-and-order types with his record as governor, and talk the talk to the homophobic and sexist Religious Right. He didn't actually have to do much for the Religious Right, but he was able to keep them all happy anyway.
(Funny how now even GWB's being written as liberal because some conservatives don't like him now. Do they have any other argument?)
Even Joyner claims the mantle of conservatism to support McCain:
The Conservative Movement has morphed from a handful of intellectual true believers trying to shape the debate into something approaching a civil religion with loyalty tests and a clericy that has the power to excommunicate.
John McCain was part of the 1980 wave that rolled into Congress on Ronald Reagan’s coattails. Indeed, McCain was among those Reagan was honored to stand with at 1974’s CPAC convention. But someone with an 82 percent lifetime ACU rating is considered a traitor to the cause. Much better, apparently, to flip 180 degrees on election eve and spout the right Party Line talking points.
As I wrote last year from CPAC, when throngs of so-called conservatives lined up for Ann Coulter’s autograph moments after she referred to John Edwards as a “faggot,” “Somehow, I can’t imagine Ronald Reagan being pleased.” Yet, the modern Conservative Moment seems to be dominated by the shrill nonsense of Coulter and Jonah Goldberg and Michael Savage and Neil Boortz. In short, the Conservative Movement is no longer particularly “conservative” at all.
He's right that Reagan himself wouldn't approve of most of the policy that's being pushed under his name, but the neo-cons, the corporate cons, the small-government types, the racists, and the Religious Right, all claiming to be real conservatives, the real heirs to Reagan's legacy, are all engaged in the most conservative thing I can think of: a giant power struggle.
Allahpundit sums it up with:
CPAC is going to be awesome this year.