The Republican Party is a stool that stands on three legs: social conservatives, economic conservatives and foreign policy conservatives.
Yet since Ronald Reagan departed and George W. Bush arrived, that coalition has been under a growing strain that may yet pull it apart and redefine what conservatism means in 21st century America.
Is a free-trade globalism that saw America lose 57,000 factories and 6 million manufacturing jobs in the last decade conservatism?
From Abraham Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt to Calvin Coolidge, that was once economic treason.
Was invading Iraq, which never threatened us, consistent with conservatism? Was a decade of nation-building in Afghanistan something Reagan would have pursued? These neo-imperial wars would have bewildered our founding fathers.
A new clash is ahead that seems fated to split the right into fiscal hawks versus security hawks. It was scheduled for early 2012 by the debt-ceiling deal forced on Barack Obama by Tea Party Republicans.
That deal cuts spending $900 billion in 10 years, with defense cuts coming in at $400 billion. The Pentagon is already at work.
Beyond that, if the new bipartisan, bicameral deficit-and-debt-reduction super-committee of 12 fails to come up with $1.5 trillion in added spending cuts and/or tax revenues, Congress must vote in 2012 to achieve $1.2 trillion in cuts.
And half of that, $600 billion, must come out of defense.
Can the super-committee avoid these defense cuts by coming up with the $1.5 trillion by Thanksgiving, which would have to be approved in up-or-down votes in both houses by Christmas?
Highly improbable, if not politically impossible.
Consider: Should the super-committee vote for new tax revenue, John Boehner's House would reject it, as the House threatened to shut down the government rather than permit higher taxes in the debt-ceiling deal.
Yet if there are no new taxes in the $1.5 trillion deal, Harry Reid's Senate would reject it, for that would be a second humiliating defeat for the left, fomenting open rebellion against Reid.
Some in Washington are saying the super-committee was set up to fail. Sen. Mitch McConnell has already said no Republican open to higher taxes will be named to the GOP's six-member slate.
Thus, in the first major step in a decade-long drive to roll back Big Government, the Pentagon will likely have to contribute $1 trillion, or 8 percent of anticipated defense spending.
And this is only the beginning. For even after the debt-ceiling deal, projected deficits are so huge that a downgrade of the U.S. debt rating and eventual default, even if done through inflation and depreciation of the dollar, seem certain.
Thus, fiscal reality is about to force upon the neocons and national security Republicans like John McCain decisions they have been avoiding since the Cold War.
Eventually, this day had to come. Indeed, we put it off too long.
As far back as the 1950s, John Foster Dulles was recommending an "agonizing reappraisal" of all U.S. alliances. Dwight Eisenhower urged JFK to withdraw U.S. troops from Europe and let Europeans take over primary responsibility for their own defense.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur told JFK not to put his foot soldiers into Southeast Asia. President Nixon said that in future Asian wars, Asian boys, not American boys, must carry the burden of ground fighting.
Robert Gates said on his departure that any future defense secretary who pushed his president to fight another Asian war ought to have his head examined. Common sense, born of painful experience.
But if the Pentagon budget is to be cut, how and where do we cut?
The debate on the right, too long delayed, must begin, for the cuts are coming and the $1 trillion likely to be slashed this year and next is only the beginning.
Wisdom in making these decisions may be found in the Kennedy commitment of 1960 that Reagan copied into the book of notes he kept in his Oval Office desk. Kennedy demanded that in defense America remain first -- not first when, or first if, but first, period.
Rather than slash weapons systems or R&D, the United States should begin by ending our three-and-a-half wars, terminating treaties to go to war for nations having nothing to do with U.S. vital interests, closing bases abroad, bringing troops home and staying out of unnecessary wars.
Why are we still committed to defending two dozen nations in Europe when the threat that took us there 60 years ago, the huge Red Army on the Elbe, went home 20 years ago?
Why are thousands of U.S. troops on the Korean DMZ when South Korea has twice the population and 40 times the economy of the North?
Why are Marines still in Okinawa, two-thirds of a century after their grandfathers invaded the island? Bring them home, and put them on the Mexican border, for that is where the future of this republic is going to be decided.