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.
In 2003, Bush declared that "when somebody hurts, government has to move." More recently, he explicitly rejected William F. Buckley's dictum that conservatives should yell "Stop" to ever-expanding government, saying instead that he believes conservatives must "lead." This makes for an interesting prologue to the 2008 election.
The front-runner in the Republican field is Rudy Giuliani, who certainly seems like a progressive. Coming up behind Giuliani are McCain and Mitt Romney, both of whom champion, on domestic policy, their competence at running government, not their conviction to trim it back.
Tellingly, most pundits see all this as an unsubtle referendum on the perception that the problem with Bush isn't his philosophy but his incompetence. Meanwhile, the Democrats - the natural home of progressive ideas - are staying true to form. Front-runner Sen. Hillary Clinton also has an undisputed record as a champion of the idea that government is alpha and omega of our national life, and a slightly less well-known history as an advocate of social gospel ideas similar to those underlying the compassionate conservatism. The governmental "village" in her book, "It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us," is all-encompassing, taking care of everybody, watching everybody, helping everybody, leaving nobody behind. John Edwards sees government as the only force to join together the mythical "two Americas." Barack Obama is a bit of a cipher, but it's hard to see much daylight between him and Clinton on first principles.
Not all that different.
It's interesting: Given all of the hullabaloo about how Republicans are doomed and conservatism is discredited (witness Time magazine's disingenuous weeping Reagan cover), you would think that the Democratic front-runner would do better in matchups against the Republicans. But Americans say they would vote for McCain and Giuliani over Clinton in the general election. Some of this undoubtedly has to do with Clinton's status as a polarizing figure. But it also might demonstrate that the differences between the two parties - and their constituencies - are smaller than the news coverage and the partisans would have us believe.
One question remains for conservatives: Where the heck is our Taft?