Conservatives need to contemplate what the Rick Perry and Herman Cain stories say about the state of their movement and the health of their creed.
Perry's debate gaffe last week was about something more important than "brain freeze." Memory lapses can strike anyone, even if they are more awkward when they occur during a presidential debate.
What really matters is the subject that sent Perry's brain into lockdown. He was in the middle of describing sweeping changes in the federal bureaucracy closely connected to his spare vision of American government. One presumes a candidate for president ponders such proposals carefully, discusses them with advisers, and understands their implications.
Forgetting an idea at the heart of your program, in other words, is not the same as forgetting a phone number, a friend's name, a football score or the title of a recently read book.
Perry's memory lapse showed that he wasn't asserting anything that he is truly serious about because he is not serious about what government does, or ought not to do. For him, governing seems a casual undertaking.
"And I will tell you," he declared, "it's three agencies of government when I get there that are gone, Commerce, Education and the -- what's the third one there? Let's see."
Yes, let's see what "gone" might imply. Would Perry end all federal aid to education? Would he do away with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the part of the Commerce Department that, among other things, tracks hurricanes? Energy was the department he forgot. Would he scrap the department's 17 national labs, including such world-class facilities as Los Alamos, N.M., Oak Ridge, Tenn., or -- there's that primary coming up -- Aiken, S.C.?
I'm not accusing Perry of wanting to do any of these things because I don't believe he has given them a moment of thought. And that's the problem for conservatives. Their movement has been overtaken by a quite literally mindless opposition to government. Perry, correctly, thought he had a winning sound bite, had he managed to blurt it out, because if you just say you want to scrap government departments (and three is a nice, round number), many conservatives will cheer without asking questions.
This is a long way from the conservatism I used to respect. Although I often disagreed with conservatives, I admired their prudence, their affection for tradition, and their understanding that the intricate bonds of community are established with great difficulty over time and not easy to reweave once they are torn asunder. At their best, conservatives forced us to think harder. Now, many in the ranks seem to have decided that hard and nuanced thinking is a telltale sign of liberalism.
That brings us to Herman Cain, who is trying to get out from under charges of sexual harassment. His approach is to have his campaign attack the individuals who leveled them, and, even more, to go after those who made these charges public.
True, he's been inconsistent about laying blame. Off and on, he pointed to his Republican opponents. But Cain and his defenders have settled on a strategy to rally conservatives by assailing the "liberal media" and "the Democrat machine."
Politico ran the first stories about the allegations, and to argue that Politico is "liberal" requires an extraordinary leap of the imagination. Most liberals see Politico as leaning over backward to give conservatives more than their share of journalistic spin.
In any event, while women of a variety of political stripes have been in the forefront in demanding accountability from Cain, plenty of liberals have been happy to look on and let the GOP settle this one. And most members of "the Democrat machine" defended Bill Clinton against impeachment in the Monica Lewinsky matter and are aware of the meaning of the word "hypocrisy."
Not so with the many conservatives who donned full feminist armor during the Clinton scandal and now defend Cain reflexively, not even asking that he come clean about the facts.
There are honorable exceptions: Bill Bennett, for one, and to some degree -- hard to admit, I know -- Karl Rove. But that so many other members of a movement theoretically devoted to traditional values on sexual matters would eagerly jump into this mess on Cain's side speaks volumes about its condition. To paraphrase Bennett from another context, where's the outrage about a conservatism that is losing both its intellectual moorings and its moral compass?
Email E.J. Dionne at ejdionnewashpost.com.