Conservative efforts have pushed the government rightward on taxes, spending and other policies, despite losses on some social fronts. One might say Republicans keep losing battles but winning wars.
This rightward drift serves as a curious, often ignored backdrop for GOP leaders' claims that the country is burdened by massive spending and taxation.
Republican lawmakers, for instance, adamantly oppose President Barack Obama's call for higher tax revenues as part of an alternative to big spending cuts about to hit government agencies. Yet the federal tax burden, as a portion of the overall economy, has been lower during Obama's four years in office than at any time since 1950.
And what about claims that spending on food stamps, environmental oversight and other nuts-and-bolts federal operations is out of control? Nonmilitary discretionary spending ranged from 3.8 percent to 5.1 percent of the overall economy throughout the 1970s. Starting in 1986, it didn't exceed 3.8 percent again until the 2008 recession dramatically slowed the economy.
Conservatives, however, have been unable in recent years to slow the rapid growth of "entitlement" programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. These popular but costly programs pose long-term fiscal dilemmas if not addressed.
Policy on some social matters—gay rights, most notably—has moved leftward. But the opposite is true for another big issue, gun control.
A 10-year ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004 is unlikely to be renewed, even in the wake of school massacres. In 1969, a Republican-led presidential commission recommended the confiscation of most handguns, a nearly unthinkable idea today.
"The political spectrum as a whole has moved to the right," said Bruce Bartlett, an economic adviser to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Even conservative activists differ on why this has happened. Some say Republicans' constant focus on a few simple ideas, such as never raising taxes, appeals to ordinary people who follow politics only sporadically.
Grover Norquist, author of a famous no-new-tax pledge, has long urged Republicans to use the strategy to build a powerful brand—"We won't raise your taxes"—similar to universally recognized products such as Coke. Whatever the Democratic "brand" is, Norquist says, it's much more muddled.
Others say Democrats, by nature, are more willing to compromise in pursuit of "good government" solutions. Republicans, who are less pro-government, are less likely to bend. When one side compromises and the other side doesn't, the center of debate moves toward the unyielding party.
Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz says the Democratic Party has become "essentially a centrist party, and has remained so despite losing its right wing since the 1960s as a result of the realignment of the South." Meanwhile, he said, the GOP "has moved rather dramatically to the right since the '60s." The political middle ground, he said, "has also shifted well to the right of where it was 30 or 40 years ago on most issues."
Abramowitz, who is writing a book on the GOP's transformation, also points to "the growing racial divide between the parties as the country has become more racially and ethnically diverse; the growing influence of right-wing think tanks, funders and media outlets; and a growing cultural/religious divide in the country."
Some Democrats say current deficit-spending debates take insufficient notice of the nation's long-running rightward shift on fiscal policies. Partisan disagreements have led to recent showdowns over the debt ceiling, the end-of-2012 "fiscal cliff" and some fast-approaching, across-the-board spending cuts called the "sequester."
Obama, saying both spending cuts and revenue hikes are needed, repeatedly has tried to reinstate a limited portion of the income tax rates that applied under President Bill Clinton, who left office with a budget surplus.
Republicans, thanks to a law they helped enact in 2011, were forced last month to accept tax increases on the richest Americans. Now, however, they say all further deficit reduction must come entirely from spending cuts.
It's a policy that would puzzle past Republican presidents such as Reagan and Richard Nixon. They mixed tax reductions and tax increases as circumstances changed. But over the past 20 years, the Republicans' "no new taxes" mantra has become virtually sacrosanct.
GOP leaders and tea party activists routinely describe Americans as overtaxed. By historical standards, at least, it's a questionable claim. In 1981, the top marginal income tax rate was 70 percent. Today it is 39.6 percent.
Federal tax revenues exceeded 20 percent of the gross domestic product in 2000. Under Obama, they have not exceeded 15.8 percent a year.
When revenues fall and spending grows, or even stays flat, deficits result. Big tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 contributed to rising deficits, and today the national debt exceeds $16 trillion. To help narrow the gap, Democrats and some independents have implored Republican lawmakers to mix higher taxes on the rich with further spending cuts.
Some Republicans fear their party's antipathy to tax increases, despite the huge debt, will put it out of step with middle America. A Pew Research poll for USA Today finds that 3 in 4 Americans support Obama's call for a mix of spending cuts and tax increases.
"The truth is, Republicans just don't care about deficits," said Bartlett, who has parted ways with many former GOP associates.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other top Republicans say the deficit is a threat. America has a spending problem, they say, not a taxing problem.
Even the often-criticized "Obamacare" law is built on foundations—chiefly, universal health coverage—proposed years ago by Nixon and the conservative Heritage Foundation. When Congress approved the new law in 2010, not a single Republican voted for it.
Some social issues are too much in flux to say, definitively, whether U.S. society has moved to their right or left. Momentum for more liberal immigration laws rose in the late 1990s, collapsed in 2007, and now seems to be rebounding.
On climate change, some conservatives dispute evidence about humans' role in rising temperatures, and the potential threat to the planet. But Obama and others are pointing to severe storms, record temperatures and other weather events in hopes of building public support for actions against greenhouse gasses.
"If you look at Republican positions on things like health care, climate change and cap and trade, they're moving away from their own positions due to internal political gravity," said David Di Martino, who was an aide to centrist Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska. "So when Obama arrives at a place where they were, say, on tax cuts, they have moved further right. So the president is always perceived to the left, even though the reality is that he's not."
Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. They have done a far better job of pushing government policy to the right.