WASHINGTON — It isn’t always easy to notice, but this year’s Republican presidential campaign has become the occasion for the collapse of conservative orthodoxy.

In Tuesday’s Republican presidential debate in South Carolina, every leading candidate declared independence from some piece of dogma or another — even as all of them clung for dear life to the word conservative. They sounded like religious doubters who compensate for their ebbing faith by shouting ever more fervently: “I believe!”

It wasn’t just that Rudy Giuliani seemed to be reading from Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the liberal Democrat from Connecticut who has long argued that helping pregnant women in order to reduce the number of abortions is preferable to an outright ban.

You also had Mike Huckabee defending his decision to raise taxes when he was governor of Arkansas, John McCain reaffirming his support for campaign finance reform (just one of his apostasies), and Mitt Romney speaking out for a strong federal role in education.

It’s come to this: The only Republican litmus test seems to be support for torture — excuse me, “enhanced interrogation techniques.” McCain was alone in standing up forcefully and unapologetically against torture by whatever name, a welcome return of the independent-minded dissident willing to risk votes for principle.

One dynamic forcing Republicans to new ground is the failure of the Bush presidency. This is leading liberals to insist that President Bush’s tenure proves conservatism doesn’t work, and conservatives to insist that Bush was never a real conservative (something they didn’t say when his poll ratings were high).

Something similar happened to Jimmy Carter in 1980 when conservatives attacked him as a liberal while liberals disowned him. Carter’s defeat by Ronald Reagan was followed by an extended liberal nervous breakdown. Now, it’s conservatives who are panicking.

But Republicans also know in their guts that their old axioms don’t work anymore because their constituencies are breaking up.

The obituaries this week for the Rev. Jerry Falwell often took the form of elegies for the entire religious right. Younger and suburban evangelicals may be more or less conservative, but they do not share the ideological fervor of the Moral Majoritarians. These new evangelicals care about issues other than abortion and gay marriage. They yearn, along with almost everyone else, for problem-solving competence.

Thus did McCain stress his ability “to reach across the aisle on issues that are important to America” and the need to “work together, as they used to in the past when I first came to Congress.” That particular “past” predated the Great Bush Polarization.

Huckabee was challenged on taxes by former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, who sticks punctiliously to every last detail of the old conservatism. Huckabee not only insisted that he had cut taxes “94 times,” but also had no apologies for raising them to build roads or “to improve education in a state that desperately needed it.” Read his lips: Tax increases are sometimes necessary.

Romney and Giuliani could easily join the race to moderation — otherwise known as the Who Sounds the Most Like Arnold Schwarzenegger Contest. But they are worried about their own straying, past or present, on the abortion issue.

Incidentally, my column about Giuliani earlier this week quoted Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput’s critical words in 2004 about John Kerry. But it’s worth noting that in the same interview, the archbishop predicted that if Giuliani were the 2008 Republican nominee, “you’re going to see the Republicans screaming at the church for making such a big issue of a pro-life matter.” We’ll find out.

Giuliani thinks he can overcome all the social issues by out-toughing everybody on terrorism. Imagine: His breakthrough moment Tuesday involved going after not McCain or Romney but the nowhere-in-the-polls libertarian Ron Paul.

Romney, meanwhile, is trying so hard to be a true blue conservative that he’s not playing his strongest card as a decent manager at a time when the country gives competence a much higher priority than it did before the Bush era. But even Romney split with conservative purity in defending the No Child Left Behind education bill.

If conservative ideologues were the dominant force in Republican primary politics, Giuliani would not be at the top of the pack, Gilmore the Pure would be doing better, and McCain and Huckabee would not be placing bets on pragmatism and political reconciliation. Yes, every Republican still wants to be called a “conservative.” But they are all feeling pressure to pour new wine into that old vessel, because it’s almost empty. And Democrats beware: A less orthodox Republican Party would be a lot more popular.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at symbol)aol.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group


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