Who’s to blame for the GOP’s current sorry state? In the wake of the defeats of 2006 and 2008, it’s a question that has convulsed the Republican Party. But the debate is not simply a matter of historical perspective; it will define the future of the party, and of conservatism, as well.

As the cliché goes, there are three main factions in the conservative movement: social conservatives, economic conservatives and national security conservatives.  Each faction has received blame for the right’s electoral troubles in inverse proportion to its responsibility. Fiscal conservatives, reformers and moderates all tend to agree that social conservatism is somehow the right’s albatross. But social conservatives had the least influence in the Bush White House and the least responsibility for Bush’s unpopular policies.  Aside from the so-called “faith-based initiative,” which many Christian conservatives opposed, social conservatives saw little return for their reliable support.

Economic conservatives have been roundly criticized for the tax cuts that, combined with increased spending, have created a massive federal debt. They are blamed for forcing the GOP to adhere to disastrous free market dogmas that supposedly led to the financial crisis.  By and large, however, the GOP adhered to nothing of the kind.  From trade to finance, collusion with and government support for corporations were normal for the Bush administration, which was regularly at odds with the most libertarian members of the House GOP on these issues. Indeed, economic conservatives are mostly guilty of sins of omission and acquiescence.

The faction most responsible for the GOP’s political failure is national security conservatives. Yet within the party, they remain unscathed, their assumptions about the use of American power largely unquestioned, and their gross errors in judgment forgotten or readily forgiven.  Among the mainstream right, the foreign policy of the Bush administration is barely a subject of debate. Rather than reorienting Republican foreign policy towards a political center defined by realism, humility and restraint, the GOP’s leadership and activists have redoubled their commitment to Bush and Cheney’s hawkish stances and to a lock-step defense of the Bush administration’s policies.

This situation creates a strange incongruity. In one breath, conservatives will invoke a baseless claim that Bush’s excessive spending lost them the country, and in the next they will defend to the last Bush’s decisions as Commander-in-Chief. Yet these were the decisions that, more than anything else, led to Democratic victories and the GOP’s now toxic reputation.  What is more, everyone outside the conservative bubble knows the narrative that mainstream conservatives tell themselves is false, which makes conservative professions of fiscal austerity and continued hawkishness even less likely to win public support.

Like their short-sighted cheerleading for a “surge” in Iraq, which failed on its own terms, and their subsequent carping this year that the Pentagon budget increase is too small, the mainstream right’s apologies for torture are not only morally bankrupt but also divorced from the reality of the intelligence, or lack thereof, these methods provided.  Much as liberals needed their internal critics to challenge the welfare status quo over the last three decades, conservatism desperately needs similar internal dissent concerning the warfare state. But there is almost none.      

One reason for the lack of dissent and accountability is that the majority of the GOP was deeply implicated in supporting and defending the war in Iraq, the signature failure of national security conservatives.  To a large extent, the party has defined itself around the ideological fictions used to justify and continue the war long after the country had turned against it. This process was aided by the disappearance of antiwar Republicans in Congress. Never numerous in the first place, most have been replaced by Democrats during the past two cycles.

On domestic policy reform, Republican governors such as Utah’s Jon Huntsman and Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty have been taking the lead, and they continue to represent the best hopes for future presidential contenders. Regrettably, they are less well-versed in foreign affairs, ensuring that many of the same national security conservatives who so poorly served the last administration will have undue influence in shaping future Republican foreign policy.  That, in turn, all but ensures that the Republican Party will appeal to a narrow part of the population on the very issues that have traditionally been the GOP’s strong suit, and without which the party cannot realistically compete in national elections.

As the Obama administration tries to capture the center with cautious moves towards withdrawal from Iraq, conciliatory gestures to allies and rivals and some belated (and insufficient) efforts in South Asia, the mainstream right has been largely united in its criticism of Obama’s diplomacy. Aside from marginal dissent from conservatives such as Ron Paul and Andrew Bacevich, the internal debates about the future of the right have focused on domestic policy.  Many more Republicans are now coming around to Ron Paul’s small-government views on spending, economics and banking at a time when there is even less popular appetite for them. Meantime, Paul’s far more popular indictment of interventionist foreign policy and empire continues to be ignored or derided. This is a dead end. Republicans will not regain their credibility on national security until they break with the aggressive pursuit of hegemony that has so ill-served American interests.