COLUMBIA, S.C.—When Republican presidential candidates debated last week over which one has the best conservative credentials, not one mentioned George W. Bush as a model.
Indeed, just seven years after he won his party's nomination and the White House vowing to put his "compassionate conservative" stamp on the movement of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, Bush instead leaves the Republican Party with an identity crisis, struggling to answer the question: What exactly is a conservative in the coming post-Bush era?
Is it still important to rein in the federal government? Conservatives once thought so. But Bush and a Republican-led Congress let spending escalate, pushed through the biggest expansion of an entitlement program—Medicare—since the 1960s, and expanded the power and bureaucratic reach of the Department of Education.
Does it matter if the government balances its budget? They once thought that crucial and long pushed a constitutional amendment to mandate it. Yet Bush let deficits and debt soar, as Reagan did before him.
What's the right balance between national security and civil liberties when the federal government wants to spy on Americans without warrants? Or when it wants to take away the right to own a gun for any American who's suspected—but not charged or convicted—of ties to terrorism?
Should the federal government regulate marriage with a constitutional amendment or let the states decide, as they have throughout American history?
These questions underscore some of the angst in the Republican Party about the leading candidates for the 2008 presidential nomination, each of whom shuns at least part of the Bush legacy and defines his own conservatism on terms he thinks will help him win the nomination and the White House.
Conservatives are left fractured, turned off by Bush's record, torn by the sometimes competing principles Bush put in play and unwilling thus far to align behind any new leader.
"What is a conservative today? There's a real debate in the conservative movement about that," said Michael Tanner, a scholar at the libertarian Cato Institute.
"There's been a shift during the Bush years to a new style of conservatism that believes you can use big government to achieve conservative ends," Tanner added. "It's very different from Goldwater and Reagan. The ideas of limited government, individual liberties and federalism have all fallen by the wayside."
One example in last week's debate came when former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney applauded the expansion of the federal role in education as a way to battle the teachers unions.
A generation ago, conservatives opposed creating the department under Jimmy Carter, then spent years urging that it either be cut or shut down.
Despite their vows during the debate to curb federal spending, the candidates didn't propose cutting any specific federal departments or programs such as the Education Department or the new Medicare prescription-drug benefit.
"They went to Washington and went native," said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Iowa. "Now they're trying to redefine themselves."
Evolution is hardly new.
Take foreign policy. Conservatives have moved from the isolationism of the 1950s to the interventionism and nation-building of the Bush era.
"The same mind-set, the same arrogance that says we can reorder domestic policy says we can reorder the world," Tanner said. "It's a real belief that government has the power to reorder society. They share that belief with liberalism."
Or social issues. When Goldwater ran in 1964, there was no debate about abortion or gay marriage.
"Those issues didn't exist then," said Lee Edwards, who worked on Goldwater's campaign and now is a scholar of conservatism at the Heritage Foundation, a research center in Washington. "They do exist now."
Edwards said Bush was a good man but that many of the debates going on among conservatives were sparked by the president's policies.
For example, he said, there's " a lot of discussion" about the Patriot Act. "We must protect our security, but we also must protect our liberties. How to balance security with liberty is a continuing debate," he said.
And there's internal debate, he said, over which conservative principle to apply in the effort to stop gay marriage: leave it to the states or amend the Constitution as a distasteful if perhaps necessary step.
In the end, Edwards said, true conservatives will remain true to traditional conservative principles: limited government, free markets, individual freedom and responsibility, traditional American values and a strong national defense.
"Is conservatism in flux? No. Republicans have changed. But conservatives have not."
KEY DATES IN MODERN CONSERVATISM:
1953: Russell Kirk publishes "The Conservative Mind."
1955: William F. Buckley founds National Review.
1960: Barry Goldwater publishes "The Conscience of a Conservative."
1964: Goldwater runs for president; loses but inspires new generation of conservatives.
1976. Ronald Reagan loses Republican nomination challenge to President Gerald Ford.
1978: California voters pass Proposition 13 cutting taxes, starting tax rebellion.
1980: Ronald Reagan elected president.
1981: Economic Recovery Tax Act cuts income tax rates by 25 percent.
1994: Republicans win House and Senate.
1996. Republican Congress passes welfare overhaul; Democrat Bill Clinton signs it.
2001: Congress cuts taxes; Bush signs it.
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