In The Repudiation of Rove, Harold Meyerson argues that McCain is the philosophical heir of Barry Goldwater, and his rejection by GOP insiders speaks to the death of the movement:
With his preemptive war and seemingly permanent occupation in Iraq, and his attempt to privatize Social Security, George W. Bush pushed American conservatism past the point where the American people were willing to go—pushed them, in fact, to the point where they recoiled at the conservative project. And with that, American conservatism shuddered to a halt. In the 2005-06 congressional session, Republicans still controlled both houses of Congress, yet they introduced no major legislation.I think he's on to something. More on this later.
This exhaustion of conservatism has been apparent all along in the Republican presidential contest, where the chief point of agreement among the leading candidates has been to make permanent both the Bush tax cuts for the rich and our occupation of Iraq. The conservative agenda has been winnowed down to supporting what remains of Bushism. That's not only a losing formula for November, it also means that intellectually, conservatism is running on empty.
Huckabee's legions have their own cause—a pious populism that doesn't have much sway in urban areas. But consider what animates conservatives' support for Mitt Romney. It's not that they have warmed to his shifting agenda or his elusive charisma. They simply hate John McCain, who threatens their cosmology by waging a campaign that does not put them at the center of the political universe. That, certainly, is what animates Rush Limbaugh and the right-wing talkocracy, who feel their power ebbing with each McCain success.