"We love him most for the enemies he has made," said Gen. Edward Bragg of Democrat Grover Cleveland, who, after being nominated by Bragg in 1884, was elected the 22nd president. As mayor of Buffalo and governor of New York, Cleveland, by declaring war on Tammany Hall and organized corruption, had made many powerful enemies.

In their own salad days, American conservatives were never afraid to cross swords with some big, formidable and even popular enemies. It was, after all, American conservatives, through their China lobby, who dictated a 23-year U.S. policy of no contact, no trade and no relations with Mainland China after the Red Army under Mao Zedong routed Chiang Kai-shek. A conservative Sen. Richard M. Nixon alerted voters, "All that we have to do is take a look at the map and we can see that if Formosa falls, the next frontier is the coast of California."

Lonely and outgunned, American conservatives were once there to stand up against powerful and popular movements, and more than once against the march of history: the New Deal, FDR, Social Security, the American civil rights movement, the Warren Court, Medicare, environmentalists, gay-rights activists, feminists, student protesters and liberals -- in several different getups. Conservative hero Barry Goldwater took on Big Labor; conservative hero Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union the "evil empire" and dramatically challenged "Mr. Gorbachev" to "tear down" the Berlin Wall.

But now the devil and archenemy threatening the survival of American conservatism is no longer fearsome, awesome or even semi-renowned. According to the "unholy trinity" of conservative journalism -- the Wall Street Journal editorial page, William Buckley's "National Review" magazine and the take-no-prisoners poet laureate of supply-side conservatives, columnist Robert D. Novak -- the nemeses are the appropriations committees in the Republican-controlled Congress.

Please do not take my word for it. Listen first to Novak, who names the chief clerk of the House Appropriations Committee, the widely respected James W. Dyer, as the overriding reason that "the Republican-controlled Congress is speeding over the cliff of federal spending" ["The Imperial Clerk," op-ed, Sept. 20]. From the National Review comes the indictment of Dyer as the committee's "most reviled aide," who "is actually a Bush Republican," an offense card-carrying conservatives deem more serious than blatant draft dodging, chronic adultery or spousal abuse.

That the GOP majority in Congress still carries painful scars from the 1995 shutdown of the federal government, when President Clinton made the Republicans look both inept and uncaring, is understandable. Hill Republicans are transparently gun-shy about any repeat showdown over spending with the White House. But when influential conservative journalists charge that Republican chairmen and their committees are little more than flunky pawns dancing to the tune of a committee staffer, the only conclusion is that Republican members of Congress are feckless, stupid and impotent.

Of course, that is not the case. The reality is that no staff person on Capitol Hill remains employed unless that staff person is doing (or not doing) what pleases the representatives or senators who employs him or her.

To its credit, the Wall Street Journal does not blame all Republican shortcomings on a congressional "staff infection." But the paper does condemn those "Republicans who sit on the House and Senate appropriations committees." The Journal is especially harsh on Republicans who, in its opinion, came to power "vowing to change government" but whom "incumbency has changed . . . into imitation Democrats."

Is this all that the American conservative movement has shrunk to? Recriminations and squabbles over federal funding of legal services for the poor? How did the conservative vision blur into such petty bickering? What would contemporary conservatives say by way of explanation to Ronald Reagan or Barry Goldwater, two leaders whose conviction and passion could lift a believer's spirits and an audience to its feet? Can anyone tell us how the conservative agenda shriveled into an inside-baseball argument over congressional committees? That, as we all know, is not the stuff of a driving dream.