07/15/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Identity Crisis

As the Republican Party moves to engineer itself for a post-Bush era, many Americans are reconsidering the definition of conservatism. The sad death of my former colleague Jesse Helms and today's New York Times editorials on Nelson Rockefeller and Dwight Eisenhower offer an opportunity to consider the current state of the GOP. How did the party of Abraham Lincoln, the great emancipator, become a party so strong in the South? Much of the transformation began in 1964.

As a lifelong Republican now disaffiliated and supporting Barack Obama for president, I still recall that year's GOP convention in San Francisco's Cow Palace. At age 11, I was there with my father, a Rockefeller delegate, when the Republican Party overwhelming nominated Sen. Barry Goldwater. In retrospect, it's hard to believe that our party selected a candidate who had voted against the Civil Rights Act in the Senate. In the end, the Arizonan won only six states besides his own: Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina! Goldwater lost the election, but his candidacy sowed the seeds of the new Republican Party of which Jesse Helms would someday be a part.

Helms' legacy is one of strong opposition to women's reproductive freedom, gay rights, foreign aid for diplomacy, public funding for the arts. The priorities Helms pioneered run strong in today's GOP. But I believe the policies Rockefeller and Eisenhower championed represent a truer conservatism.

The new Republican Party, which controlled the executive and legislative branches for much of my time in the Senate, has squandered a surplus, neglected our planet, desecrated our First and Fourth Amendment freedoms, mired us in a costly quagmire in the greater Middle East and augmented the tragic disparity of wealth in America. Who would call these policies conservative?

Eisenhower-Rockefeller conservatism supported a robust middle class and sound environmental stewardship. It also championed personal freedoms and valued investing in educational opportunity for all. But these policies have all but disappeared from Republican politics. Can anyone imagine a modern Republican president warning America of a dangerous "military-industrial complex"?

Since the 1964 election, the definition of conservatism has grown murky and the Republican Party has changed dramatically.