Rank-and-file Republicans are justifiably focused on their party's potential slate of presidential candidates in 2008, but I think they ought to be more concerned with the more fundamental issue of the direction of the party itself.
I agree with Newt Gingrich that the Republican brand is in trouble. People no longer associate the Republican Party with fiscal restraint or limited government. What differences there are between the parties -- and they are still substantial -- are thought to spring more from partisanship than ideology and principle.
To motivate its alienated conservative base, which is the only avenue to resurrecting the Republican majority -- and to good governance -- the party must recapture its ideological underpinnings. It cannot be all things to all people nor significantly dilute its agenda without losing its core -- its soul.
Country club Republicans, of course, disagree with this prescription and will urge the party to accept the "reality" of big government and move to the center, insisting that the only path to reconnecting with voters is to compromise with liberals.
These Rockefeller types have been around since before Ronald Reagan's ascendancy, and they long for the good old days when they were the dominant force in the party. After all, when they were in charge, liberals never thought they lacked sophistication and nuance.
With Reagan at the helm there was little doubt what the party stood for -- and why. His policies emanated from a Judeo-Christian worldview and were therefore consistent and cohesive.
Since he left office, the party, except for the 1994 Congress, has lost its focus. President Bush 41 moved the party away from Reagan conservatism, promising a "kinder and gentler" approach. Many interpreted this as a tacit admission that conservatism lacks kindness and gentleness.
President George W. Bush sent mixed signals concerning his allegiance to Reagan conservatism. On the one hand he strongly hinted that he identified more with Ronald Reagan's brand of conservatism than his father's. On the other, he promoted "compassionate conservatism," which some viewed as his effort to distance himself from traditional conservatism.
In office President Bush has been admirably conservative on such big issues as taxes, the judiciary, the war and social issues. In other major areas, like immigration, discretionary domestic spending, education and the prescription drug entitlement, he has greatly disappointed conservatives.