It is becoming even clearer to me since the last election, as some of the clutter has been swept away. Conservatism has to mean resistance to expansive government power if it is to endure as anything vaguely coherent as a governing philosophy. Believing in limited government does not mean loathing all government; in fact, it means making a smaller government more effective, in part by limiting its ambitions to what it can effectively do that no other body can. The resilience of the anti-government thread - even in its least articulate "tea-partying" variety - and the cogency of this critique in the long-term of Obama's pragmatic liberalism make a small government Republicanism hard to kill, however much some would like it.
The problem, however, for such a limited government conservatism, is foreign policy. It is extremely hard to fit a multi-continent, Iraq and Afghanistan-occupying war on terror into this rubric. It's just too utopian, expensive and open-ended. Gary Becker makes this point well:
The current Republican Party is trying to incorporate two inconsistent sets of beliefs: one is the support of competition and generally freer markets, and the other is the advocacy of interventionist policies on various social issues, such as gays in military, stem cell research, or in international affairs. Both these positions are often linked together as "conservative", but they involve contradictory views of government. I argued for a consistent conservative position that supports individual choices, and opposes big government.
If you cannot cut taxes, and you will not make a dent on entitlements, then the next big ticket item is defense. My view is that a successful future Republicanism will begin to urge a dismantling of the empire and a limiting of the war on terror just as it will do in the war on drugs. This doesn't mean isolationism; it means a much more sober view of what a bankrupt America can do effectively to advance its real interests in the world:
Conservatives are not isolationists on international affairs since they recognize that the interests of a country like the US are affected by what happens in other countries. This is clear in Reagan's successful efforts to wear down the Soviet Union during the Cold War, or in more contemporary efforts to anticipate terrorist attacks planned in other countries. However, just as with the use of government powers on purely domestic issues, conservatives would recognize that governmental foreign actions are usually very inefficient (as in conducting wars), and are often driven by special interests. A conservative philosophy would limit governmental international interventions to cases where the risks from not taking actions are very large, and the interventions reasonably straightforward.