Dissent from Bush was muted for years, in large part because of 9/11 and the Iraq war. Conservatives, right or wrong, rallied to support their president, particularly in the face of shrill partisan attacks from Democrats who seemed more interested in tearing down the commander in chief than winning a war. But the Bush chapter is closing, and the fight to write the next one has begun.
In one corner, there are a large number of bright, mostly younger, self-styled reformers with a diverse -- and often contradictory -- set of proposals to win back middle-class voters and restore the GOP's status as "the party of ideas" (as the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it).
In another corner are self-proclaimed traditional conservatives and Reaganites, led most notably by Rush Limbaugh, who believe that the party desperately needs to get back to the basics: limited government, low taxes and strong defense.
What's fascinating is that both camps seem implicitly to agree that the real challenge lurks in how to account for the Bush years. For the young Turks -- my National Review colleagues Ramesh Ponnuru, Yuval Levin and David Frum, the Atlantic's Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, New York Times columnist David Brooks, et al. -- the problem is that Bush botched the GOP's shot at real reform. For the Limbaugh crowd, the issue seems to be that we've already tried this reform stuff -- from both Bush and McCain -- and look where it's gotten us.
Neither camp has adequately explained where Bush figures in their vision for the future of the party. Is reform going to be a debugged compassionate conservatism 2.0 or a Reaganesque revival of conservative problem solving? Does back-to-basics mean breaking with the precedents of the last eight years or building on them?
The irony is that both camps agree on a lot more than they disagree. The reformers are committed to market principles and reducing the size and role of government, and so is the back-to-basics crowd. The problem is that an elephant named George in the room is blocking each side from seeing what the other is all about. But hopefully not for much longer.