Then, for that brief and shining Iowa moment, there was Huckabee -- until conservatives actually looked at his record (on taxes, for example) as governor of Arkansas, and listened to the music of his often unconservative populism.
That left Romney, the final stop in the search for the compelling conservative. I found him to be a fine candidate who would have made a fine president. But until very recently, he was shunned by most conservatives for ideological inauthenticity. Then, as the post-Florida McCain panic grew, conservatives tried to embrace Romney, but the gesture was both too late and as improvised and convenient-looking as Romney's own many conversions. (So late and so improvised that it could not succeed. On Thursday, Romney withdrew from the race.)
Conservatives are on the eternal search for a new Reagan. They refuse to accept the fact that a movement leader who is also a gifted politician is a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. But there's an even more profound reason why no Reagan showed up this election cycle and why the apostate sheriff is going to win the nomination. The reason is George W. Bush. He redefined conservatism with a "compassionate" variant that is a distinct departure from classic Reaganism.
Bush muddied the ideological waters of conservatism. It was Bush who teamed with Teddy Kennedy to pass No Child Left Behind, a federal venture into education that would have been anathema to (the early) Reagan. It was Bush who signed the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform. It was Bush who strongly supported the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill. It was Bush who on his own created a vast new entitlement program, the Medicare drug benefit. And it was Bush who conducted a foreign policy so expansive and, at times, redemptive as to send paleoconservatives like Pat Buchanan and traditional conservatives like George Will into apoplexy and despair (respectively).
Who in the end prepared the ground for the McCain ascendancy? Not Feingold. Not Kennedy. Not even Giuliani. It was George W. Bush. Bush begat McCain.
Bush remains popular in his party. Even conservatives are inclined to forgive him his various heresies because they are trumped by his singular achievement: He's kept us safe. He's the original apostate sheriff.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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