Back during the halcyon days of Ronald Reagan's presidency the question of what was or was not a conservative position was fairly easy to determine. Reagan, unlike the caricature constructed of him by an elitist, near monolithic press and a long-regnant Democratic party, was far from a shallow simpleton; in fact, in a very real sense he may have been the most prepared president in US history. Reagan had spent most of his life reading, writing, talking and thinking about how society is ordered, where it had failed and what principles were needed to be to be in place for a free and dynamic society to remain free and dynamic. The nascent conservative movement nurtured and grown by the likes of William F. Buckley, Whittaker Chambers, Barry Goldwater, William Rusher and all the others squabbled and debated their way to a generally consistent philosophy whose standard bearer Reagan became. It could be argued whether a certain position or policy was conservative or not but the answer could be found in the First Principles to which the (now established) Movement had pledged its fealty.
Well things have changed. After years of electoral success which saw opportunity shrivel into opportunism and a Republican Congress that, under the corrosive spell of Washington's many temptations seemed to morph more and more into that regnant Democratic party it had come to power to replace, what is and is not a conservative position has lost the clarity it once had.
So now we see a current Republican field of presidential candidates whose conservatism has left the public suspicious and dissatisfied. We have candidates who just a few short years ago held positions even they admit weren't conservative. We have candidates who seem very much commited to conservative principles on some issues but not at all on others, revealing a kind of ideological confusion we have all seen before to our dismay. And we have candidates whose sound-bites echo the worst impulses of Democratic demagogues. And we seem to have a Republican electorate that is as confused about the verities as politicians would like them to be.