It's been said (mostly by columnist George Will) that you can tell who the real conservative is by asking, "Who would you have voted for in 1912?"
These days, we should probably settle for people knowing who the candidates even were, never mind having a preference. Nonetheless, for the record, they were Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. You wouldn't know it from T.R.'s cult of personality in Republican circles today, but Taft was the conservative in the race. Roosevelt bolted the GOP, taking the progressives with him into the Progressive Party, thus opening the door to a Wilson victory.
The Progressives eventually came home to the GOP in subsequent decades, going by the names Rockefeller Republicans or "moderates," and kept the conservatives at bay until 1980, when Ronald Reagan won.
You might think this historical vignette wouldn't have much bearing on today's politics given all of the carping over runaway partisanship. But the truth is we might be in another progressive moment in American politics, where both parties represent the same basic assumptions about the role of government, leaving conservatives out in the cold.
What is progressivism? For our purposes, let's just say it's the belief that the government "runs" the whole country, imposing its values on the group, the way a teacher runs a class or a drill sergeant runs a platoon (this actually describes the differences between Wilson and T.R. quite nicely).
Bush-haters - you know who you are - seem to think that Bushism is all about war. But they forget that Bush didn't initially become a war president by choice; 9/11 was thrust upon him. He was a "compassionate conservative" who didn't want to leave any children behind. The strategy that he and Karl Rove (a T.R. groupie) concocted was to create a GOP version of "feel your pain" Clintonism.
The 2000 GOP convention's theme was "Prosperity with a Purpose," and in Bush's acceptance speech he insisted that "American government was made for great purposes." In some ways, Bush was ripping off Sen. John McCain of Arizona, whose campaign was a homage to Teddy Roosevelt and the need for Americans to unite in a "cause greater than themselves."
And while the war gets most of the attention, it has hardly escaped notice that the president is a proud "big government conservative" championing everything from government-funded marriage counseling to a new prescription drug entitlement to the federal government's intrusion into education.