State of the Union speeches are sort of like listening to cheating husbands apologize to their wives. Not only are we told that any past mistakes are yesterday’s news and the worst is behind us, but in an effort to show how things will be different we are given a laundry list of promises that paint a rosier future. Nobody paints rhetorically better than Obama and the smooth talking president’s oratory skills were on full display this week-just as they likely will be next year when things won’t have substantively changed one bit.

The most significant change Tuesday night was to be found not in Obama’s speech but in the Republican rebuttal to it. Congressman Paul Ryan is considered a rising star within the GOP due mostly to his image as a budget-cutting maven, a philosophy gaining traction across the nation and certainly within the Republican Party. Ryan was tapped precisely for this reason and his speech was dedicated almost exclusively to economic matters. Ryan made a plea for fiscal restraint and a pitch for limited government. He warned that America’s growing debt was unsustainable and that a day of reckoning may be upon us. Many said Ryan’s speech was “gloom and doom” compared to Obama’s. Others said the congressman was too vague and perhaps, in some ways, he was.

But one thing is certain: Ryan’s speech was definitively conservative — something that has been noticeably absent from the Republican Party for quite some time.

If today, House Majority Leader John Boehner talks about cutting government spending it wasn’t long ago that he was embracing it wholly under a Republican brand. So was the rest of his party. During the George W. Bush years, the size of government and the accompanying debt doubled, something most conservatives barely noticed-and often encouraged-due to the party’s almost singular fixation on foreign policy. The greatest “threat” to our republic, we were told ad nauseam, was terrorism in the form of “Islamofascism,” with conservatives often using Cold War-reminiscent language to address what has always been a significant, yet certainly much less menacing threat, given Al-Qaeda’s size and capabilities compared to the Soviet Union.

It’s not that conservatives have necessarily changed their minds or seriously rethought the issue of radical Islam, only that they’ve switched obsessions. If a few years ago, any amount of spending was justified in the name of war, today spending itself is considered the primary threat. If Dick Cheney once said that “deficits don’t matter,” today’s Republicans are quick to proclaim that deficits are all that matter, and that even Cheney’s pet project of global military dominance might be on the chopping block.

The Tea Party has certainly not displaced the War Party, of either Cheney or Obama, but based almost exclusively on economics the grassroots Right has posed perhaps the most significant challenge to the neoconservative hawks who’ve dominated popular conservative opinion for some time. Reflecting this shift, Yahoo News reported this week that “Tea partiers say defense in mix for budget cuts.” Read the front page of the New York Times on Thursday “G.O.P. Splits Over Plans to Cut Defense Budget.” Antiwar.com’s Justin Raimondo noted these headlines: “More Conservatives Are Questioning the Afghanistan War” (Politics Daily), “America Has Reached Point of No Return, Reagan Budget Chief Warns” (Raw Story), and “Grover Norquist Decries Lack of Conservative Debate on Afghanistan.” Writes Raimondo: “as the American empire goes into foreclosure, and a decade of constant war has brought us no closer to ‘victory,’ those who want to limit the power and expense of government are finally beginning to wake up to the war racket. The idea that we could be the world’s policeman and still keep the reality as well as the form of a constitutional republic was always an illusion, and the veil is lifted from the eyes of grassroots conservatives at last…”

Adds Raimondo: “Reality has finally caught up with the conservative movement…”

And indeed it has. When John McCain now complains about rising “isolationist” sentiment in the Republican Party he has a point–his beloved, pro-war Republican brand is becoming further isolated from an increasingly Tea Party-tempered GOP. Whereas virtually every Republican speech during the last decade centered primarily on the need for perpetual war, Paul Ryan’s rebuttal was “Islamofascist”-free and the mere absence of such rhetoric speaks volumes compared to where the GOP stood philosophically just a few short years ago. It’s not that most conservatives have necessarily changed their minds on this important issue–it’s that there now exists a growing tension on the Right in which it might be possible to finally change minds and hopefully policy.

This encouraging development was the subtext to Paul Ryan’s rebuttal Tuesday night, and further calls for a more serious and comprehensive limiting of government just might lead to a more genuinely conservative movement.