The Reagan administration had its pragmatists and its so-called ideologues. It had James Baker as well as Ed Meese.
Reagan carried moderate states like Connecticut, Wisconsin and Washington, as well as conservative ones like Wyoming and South Carolina.
But then a great tightening occurred. Conservative institutions and interest groups proliferated in Washington. The definition of who was a true conservative narrowed. It became necessary to pass certain purity tests — on immigration, abortion, taxes and Terri Schiavo.
An oppositional mentality set in: If the liberals worried about global warming, it was necessary to regard it as a hoax. If The New York Times editorial page worried about waterboarding, then the code of conservative correctness required one to think it OK.
Apostates and deviationists were expelled or found wanting, and the boundaries of acceptable thought narrowed. Moderate Republicans were expelled for squishiness. Millions of coastal suburbanites left the party in disgust.
And still the corset tightened. Many professional conservatives do not regard Mike Huckabee or John McCain as true conservatives.
"I'm here to tell you, if either of these two guys get the nomination, it's going to destroy the Republican Party," Rush Limbaugh said recently on his radio show. "It's going to change it forever, be the end of it."
Some of the contributors to The National Review's highly influential blog, The Corner, look to Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney to save the conservative movement. Their hatred of McCain is so strong, it's earned its own name: McCain Derangement Syndrome.
Yet a funny thing has happened this primary season. Conservative voters have not followed their conservative leaders. Conservative voters are much more diverse than the image you'd get from conservative officialdom.
In South Carolina, 34 percent of the Republican voters called themselves "very conservative," but another 34 percent called themselves only "somewhat conservative" and another 24 percent called themselves "moderate." Only 28 percent of the primary voters there said that abortion should be "always illegal." This, I repeat, was in South Carolina, one of the most right-wing places in the country.
While various conservative poobahs threaten to move to Idaho if Huckabee or McCain gets the nomination, the silent majority of conservative voters seem to like these candidates. Huckabee has done very well among evangelical voters while loudly deviating from conservative economic orthodoxy. John McCain leads among Republicans nationally. He has a 71 percent favorable rating and a 23 percent unfavorable rating. He has a 63 percent favorability rating among Huckabee supporters, 66 percent favorability among Romney supporters and 81 percent favorability among supporters of Rudy Giuliani. These are much higher second choice ratings than any other candidate.
McCain's winning coalition in South Carolina was pretty broad. He lost among the extremely conservative but won among the somewhat conservative and the moderates. He lost among those who go to church more than once a week, but won among weekly churchgoers. He won among those who strongly support the Bush administration and among those who are angry at the Bush administration, among those who strongly support the war and among those who strongly oppose it. He won every income group over $30,000.
Even among people who want to deport every immigrant, McCain only lost to Huckabee by 34 percent to 26 percent.
The fact is, this has been a bad year for the conservative establishment. Fred Thompson was supposed to embody the party line, but he has fizzled (despite being a good campaigner the past month). Rudy Giuliani proposes deep tax cuts that do not seem to excite. Mitt Romney ran as the movement candidate in Iowa and New Hampshire and grossly underperformed. Now he's running as a nonideological business pragmatist for the exurban office parks, and his campaign has possibilities.
The lesson is not that the conservative establishment is headed for the ash heap. The lesson is that the Republican Party, even in its shrunken state, is diverse. Regular Republican voters don't seem to mind independent thinking. There's room for moderates as well as orthodox conservatives. Limbaugh, Grover Norquist and James Dobson have influence, but they are not arbiters of conservative doctrine.
In his South Carolina victory speech, McCain defined a more inclusive conservatism: "We want government to do its job, not your job; to do it better and to do it with less of your money; to defend our nation's security wisely and effectively, because the cost of our defense is so dear to us; to respect our values because they are the true source of our strength; to enforce the rule of law that is the first defense of freedom; to keep the promises it makes to us and not make promises it will not keep."
And McCain's success has raised an astonishing specter: Republicans may actually have a shot at winning this year.
c.2008 New York Times News Service