Originally posted in somewhat different form at The Other McCain.
Most people who are not Republicans, and many who are, tend to miss a fundamental truth about the GOP that has pretty much defined the party since the New Deal days. Unlike the Democrats, who have always been about getting and keeping political power for the sake of the patronage and other goodies it brings with it1the Republicans have always been a party defined by what it’s against. During FDR’s New Deal, the main thing we were against was the socialism of the New Deal. When the Cold War started, this receded into the background and was replaced by a fairly solid anti-communist policy that left the party somewhat rudderless when the Soviet Union collapsed. The War on Terror has replaced the Cold War to some extent; this is one of the reasons the GOP has traditionally been supportive of the military and vice versa, the other reasons being tied in with the traditionalist culture of the military.
The social conservatives, especially the Catholics who mostly hang out at National Review, didn’t always represent a major factor in the party. They first became a major bloc in the party as the Reagan Democrats of the 1980s found themselves marginalized by the radical Democrats’program of societal revolution, exemplified by their insistence on legalized abortion with as few limits as possible, and switched over to the GOP. This is not to minimize the role played by evangelical Protestants or Mormons by any means; all social conservatives were and are important to the success of the GOP, and Republicans who ignore them 2 get what John McCain got in 2008: lots of voters staying home instead of being foot soldiers and reliable voters.
Until Bush The Younger's second term, the fiscal conservatives and deficit hawks had their concerns given lip service at best, and the back of the hand at worst. Now the spendthrift socialism of the New Left, untempered by a Republican Congress or President, has been made fully operational, and in response the GOP has found another Big Idea to be against. Libertarians, social conservatives and yes, even gay conservatives have found something they can all agree on: the free-spending Democrats need to be expunged, the national debt needs to be reduced, and Uncle Sam’s credit card needs to be taken away. As with Communism, anything that distracts from tackling the Main Enemy needs to be shoved into the background until we have defeated the unholy trinity of New Leftists, public sector unions, and crony capitalists who are driving the country into a pit of over-regulation, hyperinflation, and economic stagnation, or as Stacy so often says, Weimar America.
In summary, the modern Republican party consists of three major factions: social conservatives, "hard" libertarians and other fiscal conservatives, and people who are either veterans, active duty military, or otherwise supportive of a strong national defense. Each of these factions has its own subgroups with their own agendas, which don't always jibe with what other factions want. This often causes confusion in outsiders3 who seem to expect all members of the party to agree on everything and can't understand why Ron Paul (for example) is fine with cutting the military to the point where expeditionary wars are no longer possible, cuts which would be greeted with horror by neoconservatives and other strong-defense types. It also should be stressed that "conservatism" and "the Republican Party" are not synonymous. Many conservatives, especially on talk radio, do not identify as Republicans and miss no opportunity to attack party leaders for being too willing to compromise with the Democrats4.
The author was a two-time candidate for the Minnesota House on the Republican ticket, and was active in the Independent-Republican Party (later Republican Party of Minnesota) as a precinct worker and delegate to local, congressional, and state conventions between 1986-2003. He is currently a wrangler of linkagery and troll suppressor at the conservative blog The Other McCain. All opinions are his own and not those of the Republican Party. Fnord.
1 More nakedly so since the New Left took over the party in the 70s.
2 Or worse yet, make a career out of antagonizing them.
3 I include in this group the members of the mainstream media, who for the most part know no more about the Republican Party or the conservative movement than they do about the social mores of the Zulu.
4 In fact, "compromise" is understood by most conservatives to mean "surrendering your principles and doing what the Democrats want".