In this late winter of our discontent bordering on, let's be honest, black depression conservatives' minds turn to the ways the promise of a new era of rightist government has turned to ashes by the Republican Party's incompetence and corruption.
Conservatives long enjoyed a reputation as fiscally trustworthy. The Bush administration and the GOP Congress drowned it in a sea of red ink. Conservatives were thought to be tougher on law and order. Well, well, well: The number of illegal immigrants here nearly doubled under the Bush administration, going from 7 million to 12 million.
Worst of all is the laughingstock the Republicans have made of conservatives' stock in trade: reliability on national security.
Even so, none of this is as damaging to conservatism as the way the Bush administration and its congressional enablers have hollowed out a philosophical even moral reason why ordinary people become conservative: because to be a conservative is to believe in personal responsibility, in accountability, in consequences for actions.
Consequences is an important word to conservatives. "Ideas have consequences" the title of Richard Weaver's landmark 1948 book that helped launch the rebirth of the American right became a rallying cry for intellectual conservatism. One of the reasons I became a conservative was that I came to believe that they, unlike liberals, were prepared to face squarely and realistically the consequences of bad ideas.
How many people became conservatives because they got sick and tired of liberals making excuses for personal failures? You can only blame society and define deviancy down for so long before folks with common sense realize that your philosophy is bankrupt and that your judgment is not to be trusted. The epitome of this sort of thing in recent politics was Bill Clinton's low-rent adultery, lies and perjury.
It was a given on the right that Mr. Clinton had no appreciable sense of personal honor. If he had, he would have resigned. But it did surprise many conservatives that there wasn't more public clamor for true executive accountability.
How times have changed and how they have changed conservatives. After nearly two terms of the Bush administration, conservatism in power has rendered the concept of personal responsibility null and void. When Republicans in power behaved stupidly or dishonorably, with vastly more significant consequences for the nation and the world than anything that low-rent tomcat from Arkansas pulled ... nothing happened to them.
Some, like Gen. Tommy Franks, Paul Bremer and CIA director George Tenet, all of whom bear heavy responsibility for the Iraq debacle, even got the Medal of Freedom. Other Iraq failures, like Dick Cheney and Condi Rice, stuck around and if not for the devastating loss of both houses of Congress last fall, Donald Rumsfeld would still be in charge at the Pentagon. His deputy, premier Iraq war architect Paul Wolfowitz, was rewarded for his incompetence with a plum posting at the World Bank, which he's just had wrenched from his disgraced but grasping fingers.
Alberto Gonzales, who as White House counsel helped pave the way for the Abu Ghraib scandal, moved on up to the Justice Department, where his special brand of managerial magic is destroying the department's reputation and morale. Naturally, the president stands fully behind him.
Heck of a job, the lot of you. You and your congressional Republican abettors have done a splendid job routing conservatism, and making it seem not like a plausible governing philosophy and approach to public life, but instead indecent drapery swaddling ambition in silken phrases, and incompetent hackery in velvety ideals.
What about the rest of us? Many conservatives are wailing and gnashing their teeth in anger over Mr. Bush's supposed betrayal of the base's long-suffering trust. Look, George W. Bush is the same president he's always been, except for one thing: he's no longer a winner. It takes no courage to stand up to him from the right today.
Where was the outrage when Mr. Bush and the GOP Congress were botching Iraq, running up the deficit, building his hackocracy, and suchlike that is, when conservative protest might have done some good? Scapegoating Dubya is a cheap and easy way of avoiding our own culpability in this disaster.
Being conservative used to mean that you stood for certain political ideas, but it also meant that you stood for certain virtues, especially personal responsibility and old-fashioned honor. After these last six years, it's hard to know what conservatives stand for, except never having to say you're sorry.