By Chief White House correspondent and political director
NBC News
updated 5/3/2007 9:32:44 AM ET 2007-05-03T13:32:44

The GOP enters its first debate with a fundamental problem: it no longer agrees on the definition of conservative.

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Writing about the problems facing the Republican Party this year has the feel of a broken record. But on the eve of the party's first presidential primary debate it's worth exploring just how bad this identity crisis facing the GOP really is.

The very basic definition of "conservative" and "Republican" is at stake in this first debate and this election in general.  This debate isn't just a competition to see WHO is conservative but simply a competition to define what "conservative" means in 2007.

"Conservative" as it has applied to the Republican Party has evolved over the last 40+ years. From Barry Goldwater's definition in the 1960s that emphasized a limited federal government to Ronald Reagan's that picked up on Goldwater and added national security and faith elements to the definition. Newt Gingrich, in 1994, gave the word "conservative" an aggressive, sharper elbow, while George W. Bush added a pro-government appeal.

As the previous paragraph indicates, the word "conservative" has been diluted. The definition is much fuzzier today than it was 20 years ago - let alone 40. About the only string that connects Goldwater to Bush when it comes to the word "conservative" is taxes.  And this is the problem facing the party as it heads into 2008.

Just what is "conservative" right now?  Is Pres. Bush's push for spreading democracy around the world conservative?  Probably not to Goldwater conservatives or even some early Reagan conservatives (who don't like nation-building), but that is conservative to folks like Gingrich and Bush.

Is using government to legislate faith conservative?  Again, to a Goldwater and a Reagan, probably not. Even to a Gingrich that might not be what he believes is conservative. But to a Bush it is. A few years ago the Pew foundation found in its typology survey of voters that there was now something called "pro-government conservatives."  Sounds like an oxymoron to some old-school conservatives, but these are folks who believe the government should be active in pushing various social conservative agenda items, for instance.

And this brings us to Thursday's debate, which is not just a fight among personalities but a fight to define the word "conservative." 

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Rudy Giuliani is offering himself up as a combination of Reagan and Gingrich, vowing to be pro-government (i.e. competency) but somewhat libertarian on certain social issues. John McCain is more of a throwback to his Arizona idol, Goldwater, who seems to preach small government (he rails against spending more than any other major candidate right now).  But there's a Gingrich streak in him in that believes government should be active legislatively (something un-Reagan). And then there's Romney, who basically is styling himself more on Bush's definition of conservative than any other of our four examples.  He's trying to be the candidate that can somehow tie himself to all four definers of the word "conservative."

Obviously, personality will have a lot to do with which brand of conservatism ends up selling to base Republicans in 2008. Frankly, personality may have more to do with it than any one conservative stance. But that's the rub with these Republicans running for president.  None of them represent the perfect electable conservative. 

That's why there is so much enthusiasm for Fred Thompson.  But the enthusiasm doesn't stem from the fact that he is more Reagan vs. Goldwater or more Gingrich vs. Bush. It's that he's someone who seems to be comfortable trying to be ALL things to ALL conservatives.  At least that's how he's being portrayed and compared to the current three frontrunners (Romney, Giuliani and McCain).  He does seem to be a combination of all four strains of the conservative movement.   Let's see what happens when he becomes an actual candidate.  But I digress.

As for the debate, these 10 Republicans have a lot of explaining to do when it comes to the party's identity crisis. Are they the party of small government?  (If so, then defend the creation of the Dept. of Homeland Security - which came without the disbanding of another agency.) Are they the party of national security? (If so, then defend why the public has lost confidence in the current Republican president in regards to Iraq.) Are they the party that defends America's culture of playing by the rules to get ahead? (If so, defend the president's stance on illegal immigrants as well as whether this global economy is good for so-called American Exceptionalism). Are they the party that stays out of your daily lives? (If so, then defend the Terri Schiavo intervention.)

Some conservatives are hoping that one of two things happen this election and both involve losing the 2008 presidential election: either a compromise "electable" candidate who papers over the problems gets clobbered, allowing for a purge of sorts or the party experiences a Barry Goldwater-like moment and nominates a true believer who probably loses but who sets the tone for a comeback in 2010 and beyond.

It's not clear what the best medicine is for the Republican Party. Clearly, they need to re-define conservatism back to some simple principles (low taxes, strong national defense, family values).  But the definition needs to be broad enough so that middle-of-the-road voters feel "conservative Republicans" are mainstream. Democrats did a good job in 2006 of creating a wedge between "mainstream" and "conservative"; it was similar to the success Republicans had for the last 20 years in dividing "liberals" from the "mainstream." This isn't about the party becoming more moderate, it's about the party re-branding conservative. It's a tricky tight rope to walk and it's possible there's no candidate on the stage Thursday night capable of doing just that. But one of these candidates has to attempt to be that leader because if all of them fail, then look for a louder clamor for candidates like Fred Thompson and Newt Gingrich.

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