There is no reason to be surprised by the dustup between Rush Limbaugh and Michael Steele. Rush is and always has been a voice of the conservative sphere. Republicans are not and never have been a conservative organization.

What has happened is that, as the Republican Party has been blasted into the political wilderness, the few survivors are limping back to the conservative fold, like a 35-year-old man, divorced and jobless, limps backs to his parents’ house.

That this causes tension should be no surprise, because the Republican Party has never been a voice for the American conservative movement. Not under GW Bush, not under GHW Bush, not even under the venerated President Reagan.

If one examines fiscal conservatism, those ideals call for fiscal discipline and limiting the scope of federal government. No Republican president or Congressional leadership has ever embodied that. Every time we have put Republicans in charge, they have voted for increased spending and growth in the federal government. Even sanctified Reagan presided over 7.1% average federal spending growth (not counting defense spending, which rose even faster), and added 2.8% to federal employment during his terms in office.

Fiscally, Republicans have succeeded in isolating one lonely plank — tax cuts — and have acted as if that is the sole definition of conservatism. In practical terms, this means that Republican leadership has produced rapid spending growth coupled with lower tax revenue, resulting inescapably in a vast explosion of federal debt. Of the $11 trillion in federal debt, more than 80% occurred under Reagan and the Bushes. There is nothing fiscally disciplined about the Republican Party.

As for “social conservatism,” the Republican Party fares hardly any better. The cornerstone of social conservatism is a hands-off approach from government in the lives of private citizens. But that ideology is hideously perverted by Republicans. They seek for the federal government to have the loudest voice in terms of abortion rights, gay marriage, drug laws, stem cell research, “intelligent design,” and any number of social issues. Ask Terri Schiavo’s husband about the Republican Party’s commitment to social conservative principles.

No wonder the leader of the conservative movement and the leader of the Republican Party cannot get along.