WASHINGTON -- Even many of his fellow Republicans dismiss Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky as a kooky libertarian crank. But as he has mounted a filibuster to highlight what he regards as the grave risk that drones pose to civil liberties, some conservatives wonder if Paul isn't pointing the way to at least one part of a new conservative agenda.
After all, if conservatism is about small government and individual liberty, surely a key tenet for the 21st century should be opposition to widespread, presidentially controlled, secret use of drones for homeland surveillance.
"It should be a bigger issue," said conservative consultant and Ronald Reagan biographer Craig Shirley. "Civil libertarians on both sides should be coming together on the drone matter."
Yet Paul finds himself mostly alone, as Democrats are loath to criticize the president and Republicans remain largely stuck in the gung-ho neoconservative era defined by former Vice President Dick Cheney.
President Barack Obama has changed the world conservatives live in. The old line was that a neocon was "a liberal who has been mugged by reality." Now it is reversed: Tea-party governors, mugged by political reality, are sounding like liberals on social policies such as Medicaid and teachers.
With seeming ease (which hides a fanatical attention to cultural detail), Obama also has pushed the GOP onto the wrong side of the now-revered ethos of diversity in American life.
In foreign policy, his embrace of drones is turning the GOP's old "tough on defense" campaign formula inside out. For decades, the Republicans used it to brand Democrats as weaklings unwilling to use force. Obama is a somewhat different story. Yes, he is wary of ground-level interventions. But he is glad to rain down drones, which puts him in the trigger-happy cowboy role once reserved for the GOP.
If you don't live in Florida, you may not have noticed, but there is a new Rick Scott in Tallahassee. Three years into his often testy governorship, the skinheaded tea-party skinflint has become almost warm and fuzzy, accepting federal money to expand Medicaid, talking about his own family's use of the safety net, saying nice things about teachers and even offering them a big raise.
Other GOP lawmakers from the tea-infused Class of 2010 have undergone similar transformations. A good share of congressional Republicans recently voted to spend $60 billion to repair and renew Sandy-ravaged states in the Northeast, even after they failed to "offset" that spending with cuts elsewhere. A fair number even voted for a "fiscal cliff" deal that included $600 billion in new taxes on the wealthy.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, another erstwhile small-government man, now sounds like he has been marinated in the gumbo of government, arguing that the GOP cannot be a majority force if it is seen as the "party of austerity." On immigration, Florida's Sen. Marco Rubio is leading the way toward a kinder, gentler GOP, suggesting that there be a path to citizenship even for those who entered the country illegally.
So where does all this leave the Reagan-era vision of conservatism -- that is, smaller government, radically less federal spending, fear of the sullying influence of a foreign "them" and a "bombs away" policy on national defense? As of this moment, conservatives can agree on only two things (and that may be temporary): opposition to any and all new "revenue" or tax measures, and opposition to more restrictions on the purchase and design of guns. It's a minimalist, negative agenda that underscores the right's desperate need to rethink everything, starting now.
So what should the new right brand be? Here are some sketches on the storyboard:
• The Ryan Express. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin failed as a veep candidate, but budget wonkery is his métier. His basic notion is hardheaded compassion: that the right's mission is to save the social safety net by forcing it to submit to private sector rules. That is what his old and new budgets purport to do. He's the functional descendant of the late New York Rep. Jack Kemp. Ryan is also harshly conservative on social issues, but that is not his -- not his lineage's -- main calling card.
• The Paulites. Make no mistake: Rand Paul is running for president in 2016, taking over the family franchise founded by his father, the former Rep. Ron Paul. The brand is easy to dismiss as pure, unadulterated libertarian isolationism. But, as noted, conservatives should find something appealing in Sen. Paul's vehement suspicion about drones and their possible domestic uses. To those who truly care about individual liberty, what greater threat could there be than a supervisory, not to mention lethal, drone over everyone's head?
• Rubio Demographics. Rather than rethink conservatism, Marco Rubio wants to expand the old notions to a new market: Latinos. This isn't philosophy, it is demography, but it makes sense. Though he doesn't base his own pitch on diversity, Bobby Jindal fits in the same category.
• Social Traditionalists. This would seem to be a tapped-out vein. Appealing to hard-liners on abortion, gay rights and the like might still have residual appeal in one place: the core of the Iowa Republican Party. But former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann learned that Iowa success doesn't travel well, or at all.
• Christie Crunch. The governor of New Jersey runs the way Arizona's Sen. John McCain did in 2000, as the socially moderate truth-teller who isn't afraid to take on interest groups of any kind anywhere. Disdain for politics-as-usual isn't much of a coherent philosophy, but it might sound good to conservatives in an Obama-dominated environment by the time we get to 2016.
• Another Bush. The former Florida governor Jeb Bush is out with a new book that takes a surprising rightward tack on immigration: He no longer wants to offer a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants (albeit with caveats). There are other signs that he is preparing to run: a weight loss regimen and an appearance, with his two sons, at a Washington insiders' dinner last month, at which he engaged in plenty of genial backslapping. So is this Bush, like his brother, a "compassionate" conservative? And what will that mean in 2016?