Historians will look back on this 2008 election as the point at which the Republican Party began to fracture. The Republicans inability to get strongly behind any one candidate for president seems proof of an inability to get strongly behind any one definition of conservative.
The Republicans problem is one of an unstable coalition. For all their overlap, political, religious, and business conservatives have some very real differences in opinion about the world and how it works. As issues like immigration, abortion, and trade are becoming more important, so are the differnces between these conservatives.
Commentators and analysts commonly use the term "conservative" as if its meaning is clear. The real question is, "Conserve what?" Are we talking about preserving a particular notion of church, state, or business? For the most part, these three types of conservatives - religious,political, and business conservatives - have voted as a block in presidential elections. It is becoming harder for them to do so.
Religious conservatives might want regulations limiting stem cell research, whereas business conservatives might not. Political conservatives might see gay rights and abortion as rights to be protected like the right to bear arms - a stance that gets them into conflicts with religious conservatives. Political conservatives might want to protect national industries and local jobs, feeling keenly about American products, whereas business conservatives might see such moves as obstructing progress. Political and business conservatives might also have very different opinions about the degree to which we should welcome immigration.
Business, political, and religious conservatives don't have the same goals - they simply have had overlapping goals. As the degree of overlap shifts, so will the definition and power of the Republican Party.
Illegal immigration and free trade is one area where the rift between political and business conservatives is threatening to fracture support for the Republican Party. Business conservatives want easy immigration and free trade policies that will keep down labor costs. Political conservatives, by contrast, want protection from foreign workers who make a fraction of what it takes to live comfortably in the U.S. For political conservatives, the notion of a national economy is important; for business conservatives, the notion of a national economy is quaint.
Abortion and gay rights are areas where a rift between political conservatives and religious conservatives has grown more pronounced. Rudy Giuliani, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ron Paul have a libertarian bent towards rights that offends religious conservatives. If Rudy wins the presidential nomination, his support from James Dobson-style conservatives is likely to be lukewarm at best. By contrast, if Mike Huckabee wins the nomination, he's likely to get less support from those political conservatives who don't mind the Enlightenment-era philosophers' penchant for supporting science that didn't always accord with church teachings.
It's not clear that these three types of conservatives will be able to reconcile their very different views of the world - at least not to the point of alignment they had during the last part of the 20th century. If they don't find a way to create a new, coherent vision of what it means to be conservative, the Republican Party could look back at the beginning of the 21st century as the beginning of their end.