“This way to the egress,” P.T. Barnum used to direct the stooges stupid enough to buy tickets to his traveling shows of bunco and blather. The “egress,” of course, was the exit to the street, where the stooges should have stayed. Would that we had a P.T. Barnum today who could direct us to an egress from the political hall of mirrors in which we have foolishly allowed ourselves to be trapped.

The latest clown to dance through the hall is Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who entertained the nation and quite befuddled much of its political class with his antics during the presidential primaries last winter. Before McCain’s victory in New Hampshire over Texas Gov. George W. Bush, most observers predicted he would indeed win there but nowhere else, though no one anticipated a victory as smashing as the one he actually pulled off. No sooner had the Arizona solon won in New Hampshire than an entire regiment of journalists and commentators fell into a swoon. Mr. McCain beat Mr. Bush by an impressive 18 percentage points, and by the following day, some pundits—particularly neoconservative chatterbox Bill Kristol—had glimpsed nothing less than the bright dawn of political revolution.

Writing in the Washington Post the very day after the New Hampshire primary, Mr. Kristol announced that “It is John McCain and Bill Bradley who each now have a chance that occurs only once a generation—to articulate a new governing agenda for a potential new majority.” So much for the prophetic insights of Mr. Kristol, but while he was almost unique in thinking Bill Bradley could shatter the Clinton-Gore juggernaut, he was by no means alone in trumpeting what Mr. McCain was about to accomplish. A few days later, his fellow neoconservative Charles Krauthammer also started booming Mr. McCain, assuring us that, although Mr. Bush was “more reliably conservative,” it was Mr. McCain who was the sure winner. To the neocon mind, of course, that pretty much clinched it. Why the hell would anyone support a candidate he actually agrees with on principles when he can go with an alternative who’s sure to grab the power? “The question for Republicans,” the intrepid Krauthammer assured us, “is not who will make the better president but who is more likely to be president.”

The neoconservative fascination with Mr. McCain, however, had only just begun. As the Mother of All Neocons herself. Midge Deeter, told a writer for the New Republic, “We decided that we liked McCain, then we came up with our justifications.” Nor indeed was it only the neocons who signed on with the McCain fan club. Liberal John Judis was soon scribbling in the New Republic about the “new voting bloc” that Mr. McCain had uncovered that could carry the country to a wave of “reforms” analogous to those of the Progressive era. In the Washington Post, political reporter Thomas Edsall glowed that the McCain campaign “has revealed the weakening of die conservative Republicanism that dominated national politics from the late 1960’s into the mid-1990’s, according to a growing number of GOP strategists.” The first such “strategist” Mr. Edsall quoted to prove his point was none other than Mr. Kristol himself, followed by a McCain supporter and the ubiquitous Paul Weyrich, who last year was advising conservatives to get out of politics altogether. By the time of the South Carolina primary, the chatterpunks of the Beltway had not only all but convinced themselves that Mr. McCain would be the next president but also written the epitaph of the American right.

But as South Carolina proved, the epitaph was rather premature. Mr. Bush smashed Mr. McCain there precisely by relying on the very “conservative Republicanism” that supposedly had vanished into the political gloaming. He declined to demand the removal of the Confederate flag from the state capitol building, while Mr. McCain blundered, at first denouncing the flag as a “symbol of racism and slavery” and then more or less retracting that remark and agreeing with the Texas governor. (The retraction did not help; exit polls showed that 61 percent of South Carolinians who support the flag voted for Mr. Bush.) The governor also huddled close to the religious right that has remained more powerful in South Carolina than in many other areas, and he constantly depicted himself as the “real conservative” and his rival as a “liberal” interloper. Mr. Bush, of course, is no more a serious conservative than Mr. McCain or even Mr. Gore, but his own political image was still sufficiently malleable that he and his shape shifters could twist and mold it into the forms they wished to be perceived. In the event, the voters saw what they were shown, and subsequent exit polls in later primaries showed that Mr. Bush consistently won the rank-and-file members of his own party. Mr. McCain did well for a few more primaries only because he managed to attract some union members and independents, but his claims of constructing a “new coalition” or a “new majority” fell flat. As political pollster Andrew Kohut wrote in the New York Times, “Across the country, McCain backers do not share values or care strongly about the same issues, and they are not draw from a common demographic base.” Indeed, “moral values” were more of a concern for Mr. McCain’s supporters in New York than his much touted (and imitated) “campaign finance reform.” The “conservative Republicanism” that Mr. Edsall had embalmed so easily remained sufficiently powerful to reject Mr. McCain decisively and communicate to any politician or pundit willing to hear it that the American right at the grassroots level remains so strong that it cannot safely be ignored or dismissed.

Nevertheless, the epitaph writers did have a point. In his op-ed in the Washington Post the day after New Hampshire, Mr. Kristol remarked: “leaderless, rudderless, and issueless, the conservative movement, which accomplished great things over the past quarter-century, is finished.” Mr. Kristol is usually wrong, but this time he was actually half right. If the primaries proved anything, it was that the “conservative movement” is indeed dead, though the world hangs breathless to learn of the “great things” it ever accomplished. As Mr. Kristol remarked, the three GOP candidates identified with the “conservative movement” this year—Gary Bauer, Alan Keyes, and Steve Forbes—all together received fewer votes in New Hampshire than Mr. Bush won in second place, and most of them dropped out in the next few weeks. In later remarks to the Post, Mr. Kristol repeated the same sentiment—”The orthodox conservative movement has collapsed,” he told Mr. Edsall, and “if there is to be a conservative future, which I for one hope there is, it’s not going to be shaped by the old conservative movement.” Let us leave aside for the nonce the subject of what kind of “conservative future” Mr. Kristol hopes for as well as the very interesting matter of the crucial role he and his fellow neoconservatives played in causing the collapse of a coherent, intellectually sophisticated, and politically serious conservatism, and dwell instead on the larger point that the “movement” is indeed defunct.

Yet the dismal performance of “movement conservatives” in the primaries this year was by no means the first time they had flopped. In 1996, the campaign of “movement” favorite Phil Gramm collapsed before it even arrived in New Hampshire, while other “movement” stallions—Jack Kemp, Bill Bennett, Newt Gingrich, Steve Forbes, Pat Robertson—either never got out of their stalls or stumbled and fell quickly. Mr. Kemp was momentarily resuscitated for the Dole campaign, but he proved to be just as much of a dud as his critics had always predicted.

Mr. Kristol, then, is entirely correct that the “conservative movement” is no longer, if it ever was, a serious national political force, though he seems to be wrong about why it is not. The reason he offers for its collapse is the disappearance of the voting bloc on which it was based and the emergence of the “new political majority” that he spies trampling down the vineyards behind Mr. McGain. This “new political majority” is not attached to the principles of the “movement” and will not support candidates reflecting those principles. Instead, it will drive the campaigns of “reformers” like Mr. McCain, who began charting “a new governing agenda” that, as Mr. Kristol and his sidekick David Brooks described it in the Weekly Standard, was far more friendly to Big Government and hostile to religions commitment than the old conservatism had ever been. In the course of their description, it became clear that they were merely ascribing to Mr. McCain and to his largely fictitious “new majority” what they as neocons desperately wanted to see.

The major political problem that neoconservatism has always faced has been its own lack of a mass following. Since the late 1970’s, the neocons have proved themselves expert in the courtly arts of intrigue, back-stabbing, and palace politics, and once they had attached themselves to Ronald Reagan and, through the gullibility of “movement conservatives,” had been welcomed within the palace itself, they advanced quickly to dominant positions in the foundations, magazines, and think tanks that managed and financed Conservatism, Inc. But it was Reagan or the senior George Bush or the Republicans who actually attracted the mass following that kept the neocon courtiers employed and enjoying at least the semblance of political power. As long as they remained attached to a successful political figure who could get elected without their assistance, they remained also at his mercy and were unable to achieve the total dominance their passion for power craved. Now, with Mr. McCain galloping on the horizon with his supposed “new political majority” behind him and a “new governing agenda” dangling at his hip that excluded the anti-Big Government conservatives, the religious right, and the neo-isolationists, it suddenly seemed that the days of dependence were nearly over and the hour of the neoconservative beast had come round at last.

The collapse of the McCain crusade dashed these dreams. Mr. McCain’s temporary success in New Hampshire did not prove that there was such a majority nor that the political right was dead, though the lackluster performance of the “movement” candidates did reveal their own political irrelevance and that of the “movement” from which they sprouted. Mr. Bush’s success, on the other hand, based as it was on his appeal to the right, shows that—at least at the grassroots level where voters really vote and never a neocon trod—the right remains very much alive. To say the “conservative movement” is dead, defunct, and politically irrelevant, on the one hand, and that the political right at the unorganized, grassroots level remains alive, strong, and even essential for political victory, on the other, is not contradictory. On the contrary, movement conservatism failed to become a serious political force not because it missed the boat captained by any “new majority” or “new coalition” but because it failed to recognize the real political majority that still exists and which Mr. Bush manipulated to gain the GOP nomination.

The real majority—it is not literally a majority of the voting population but a large block of it—is simply the white, mainly ethnic, working- and middle-class ranks of American society, and the way to win it is not by involving the deathless platitudes and banalities of “movement conservatism” or the tendentious “Inside Manhattan” policy-wonkery offered by the neoconservatives. The way to win Middle Americans is to communicate to them that you, as a candidate and a public leader, understand that they and their way of life are under siege, that the ruling class of the country in alliance with its underclass is besieging them, and that you are willing to ally with them against their enemies. Neoconservatives don’t get this and never will, which is why they do not and never will have a mass following of any kind. Movement conservatism never got this either, because it and its spokesmen were more interested in proving their pet points about their various idols than in doing something useful to protect and conserve the people and culture of the nation. Joe McCarthy, for all his shortcomings, did get it, as did George Wallace. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan also got it, at least to the extent that they understood how to use it to get themselves elected. Young Mr. Bush, if he did not understand it before the recent primaries, should have learned it by now, though it xvill not be surprising if he failed to do so. Since Reagan, no successful political leader on the right has shown that he understands it, and today the entire political class, right as well as left, has schooled itself to miss it and to talk about just about anything other than the class and cultural war that is being waged against Middle America.

The blunt and brutal truth is that if no one is willing or able to wage war back, then the war will be lost, and that may in fact be happening. The abandonment of issues relevant to Middle American survival by most political leaders and opinionmakers means that the war is not being fought and the issues within it are not being defined adequately. There is still a chance in this last election of the century that someone xvill emerge who is able and willing to fight the war. But if he doesn’t emerge this year, the best plan for Middle Americans and those who side with them in the future will be to look for the egress and run like hell for it.