E.J. Dionne may have a special affinity for declaring various ends to conservatism. But that doesn't mean he's wrong. Make sure to check out his piece today on "The End of the Right?"

Sure, the GOP's in trouble in 2006. But its problems go much, much deeper than that. Under George W. Bush, conservatism has ceased to mean much of anything at all. It's not about small government, it's not about fiscal discipline, it's not about states' rights, it's not even about competent war leadership. And, as Dionne says, it reached something of a low last week with the Republicans trying to swap an increase in the minimum wage (which Republicans are supposed to hate as a government intrusion into the economy — and an economically illiterate one at that) for a repeal of the estate tax (a good idea, certainly, but far from a top priority).

How has Bush led us to such incoherence? Andrew Busch, author of Reagan's Victory: The Presidential Election of 1980 and the Rise of the Right, put it well in an op-ed on OpinionJournal earlier this week: "Mr. Bush has neglected the critical task — carried out by Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and Newt Gingrich — of advancing a public argument that connects his otherwise disparate policy decisions to a broader philosophical framework. He has failed to articulate the philosophical argument for limited government that once defined the Republican Party."

Busch argues, correctly I believe, that coherent argument is much more important to the GOP than to the Democrats. They want to give away free stuff; that's easy to understand. We want to take away free stuff, lower taxes, and strengthen the economy and civil society; and that takes a lot more explaining. Without coherent argument or any sense of conservative first principles, Bush has repeatedly given away the store in the name of compassionate conservatism: with the worthless No Child Left Behind law, with the extravagant Medicare prescription-drug bill, etc., etc.

How to come back? Busch outlines a conservative plan based on:

— holding the fiscal line on both taxes and spending;

— re-energizing a public philosophy of constitutionalism and limited government;

— supporting a measured cultural traditionalism;

— incrementally introducing mechanisms for greater choice and accountability into existing public programs;

— concerted campaigning in the black and Hispanic communities on the basis of moral and religious standards, as well as entrepreneurship;

— continuing to promote the vitality of civil society.

It all sounds pretty good to me. There's no time or way to bring the Republican Party around by this fall. But as we head into the 2008 primary season, conservatives concerned about the direction of the party should keep these concepts in mind.

Just because Republicans have been winning elections doesn't mean conservatism is triumphant. In fact, given the compromises that have been made to get here, true conservatism may well be in its worst shape ever.