The Editor's Desk

On a late winter afternoon, the sunlight fading outside the window, John McCain was sitting in his Senate office—he uses Barry Goldwater's old desk—shaking his head about the billions of dollars in earmarks in the federal budget and talking about the future of his party. Rush Limbaugh was Topic A in the capital; the radio giant's long speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference—one in which Limbaugh repeated his hope that President Obama will "fail"—had led to a tactical Washington tempest. Sensing an opportunity, the White House had singled out Limbaugh as, in Rahm Emanuel's words, "the intellectual force" of the Republican Party. It was not a bad strategy: in the NEWSWEEK Poll, 46 percent have an unfavorable opinion of Limbaugh. (As a point of contrast, Obama's unfavorable rating is 22 percent, and even Nancy Pelosi fares better than Limbaugh.)

In the West Wing on the same afternoon, David Axelrod was musing about the complexities of the politics during the recession. "One way of looking at American politics right now is through the frame of responsibility," he told me. "The vast majority of ordinary Americans are doing what they are supposed to do, and all the other institutions have not, especially in corporate America. And the government, under a Republican administration, failed to hold these institutions accountable. So the problem for Rush is that his position is now associated with irresponsibility."

I asked McCain what he made of the Rush wars. "We all know what Limbaugh is saying—that he hopes the president's philosophy will fail and voters will turn to the Republicans," said McCain, who was first elected to Congress in 1982. "But at the same time, Limbaugh is just one of several voices—we also have Pawlenty, Jindal, Cantor, Palin and other leaders in our party. After a terrible defeat like the one we just suffered, we should let a thousand flowers bloom."

But as David Frum—a conservative, and a former speechwriter for George W. Bush—writes in our cover, the party Ronald Reagan built (a coalition of fiscal conservatives, foreign-policy hawks and religious traditionalists) is suffering its most profound crisis since its inception in 1964. A conservative Republican, Frum was president of the Federalist Society chapter at his law school, worked on The Wall Street Journal editorial page and helped draft George W. Bush's "Axis of Evil" address. He is no bleeding heart.

But he is frustrated with his party. To say the least, this is a serious time requiring serious national action. Obama is not perfect, but he seems to be honestly grappling with the world as it is, and he needs—not to be too grand about it, but the country needs—an opposition that is intellectually engaged and straightforward about the challenges of the time. Just saying no to Obama may win votes in the midterms, but it will not substantively improve a deteriorating situation.

Limbaugh, who declined our request for an interview, is the most vivid example of the larger story of the decline of conservatism. (This is not a partisan point; the crisis in liberalism in the decades after Lyndon Johnson was one of the prevailing stories of the age.) "It's the tonalities, it's the anger," says Sam Tanenhaus, the Whittaker Chambers and William F. Buckley Jr. biographer who is writing a book about conservatism's intellectual collapse. "Rush and CPAC want to work themselves up, but the great middle of the country is not going to listen to them. The Republicans now are like the Democrats in 1972—and think how long it took them to really get back to the center under Clinton."

In the White House, Axelrod added: "We all know that politics tends to move in epochs. Nineteen thirty-two to 1980 was liberal; 1980 to 2008 has been a Republican epoch. I think it's too early to say what the coming years will be, but our candidacy was premised on the idea that this is a transformative moment—that the Republican project had run out of steam. There's an opportunity here." There is indeed—and for conservatives, too, if they seize it.