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Cloudy Fortunes for Conservatism

Thompson is a solid, traditional, mainstream conservative. He'd be equally comfortable at an American Enterprise Institute conference, a Federalist Society luncheon or a county fair. Taken at his word, Thompson is a card-carrying Reaganite, favoring low taxes, a strong defense and a shrunken role for the federal government.

Huckabee, meanwhile, is nearly the philosophical opposite. He would even use his power as president to push for a national ban on public smoking. "I'm one of the few Republicans," Huckabee insists, "who talk very clearly about the environment, health care, infrastructure, energy independence. I don't cede any of those to the Democrats."

When Huckabee says that, he means it in the same way that Bush promised not to surrender health care and education (another Huckabee issue) to his opponents when he ran as a "compassionate conservative." As a result, we got the biggest federal government expansion into education in history and the largest spike in entitlement spending since the Great Society.

Huckabee says he's a "paradoxical conservative," and his success so far suggests that this is the wave of the future on the right. McCain, who may be emerging as the "establishment" candidate, proves the point. He's more socially conservative than many believe, but he often enjoys earning (and deserving) the enmity of the Republican Party's conservative base. Would anyone be shocked if this putative "establishment candidate" ended up picking Sen. Joe Lieberman as his running mate?

There are important differences -- on national security, the role of government, religion -- among the different brands of conservatism bubbling up. But none of them necessarily reflects the views of the pro-government and social conservative rank and file. The center of the right does not hold, and so we see an army with many flags and many generals and nobody knows who goes with which.

In other words, there's a huge crowd of self-described conservatives standing around the Republican elephant shouting "Do something!" But what they want the poor beast to do is very unclear. And it doesn't take an expert in pachyderm psychology to know that if a big enough mob shouts at an elephant long enough, the most likely result will be a mindless stampede -- in this case, either to general election defeat or to disastrously unconservative policies, or both.

The traditional conservative believes that if you don't have a good idea for what an elephant should be doing, the best course is to encourage it to do nothing at all. Alas, the chorus shouting, "Don't just do something, stand there!" shrinks by the day.

Jonah Goldberg is editor at large of National Review Online and author of "Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning."

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