The slander “RINO” or “Republican-In-Name-Only” has never made sense to me. I fully understand what conservatives who use it are trying to say—that a Republican who votes for higher taxes, less freedom and bigger government isn’t living up to what the GOP is supposed to stand for. The problem is, big government is precisely what the GOP has stood for most of the time. Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan were unique exceptions. Presidents Nixon and both Bushes more accurately reflected the general Republican rule. Most of the time “conservatism” has meant little more than Republicans promising to be slightly better than the Democrats and then not even living up to that promise, as government has grown significantly under each successive president regardless of party.

One of my favorite routines by comedian Chris Rock is his skit about the trained tiger that attacked one half of the famous magician duo “Siegfried and Roy” a number of years ago. Rock hilariously mocked those who claimed that the tiger “went crazy.” No, Rock explained, “That tiger didn’t go crazy, that tiger went tiger!”

Liberals and more than a few Republicans now say the Tea Party represents a GOP gone crazy. But actually the current debt-conscious and fiscally stubborn portion of the GOP more closely represents what both its supporters and critics have always perceived Republicans to be: The party of small government. Siegfried and Roy fans can agree that trained tigers don’t usually attack, but they would likely also agree that such behavior isn’t exactly uncharacteristic of a tiger. Many conservatives can agree that most of the time the Republican Party doesn’t usually try to limit government—but they would also agree that characteristically, it has always been considered the party of limited government.

In the showdown over the debt ceiling, the Tea Party Republicans who now demand deep cuts and significant budget reform don’t represent a flight from sanity for the GOP —but a return to form. Some fear this return might be permanent, or as columnist David Brooks writes at the New York Times: “the Republican Party may no longer be a normal party. Over the past few years, it has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative.”

What “faction” defined by “psychological protest” has “infected” the Republican Party? That’s easy. They’re called “conservatives.”

To accept Brooks’ premise—that the conventionally “conservative” or “normal” GOP has been perverted in some sense by a bunch of crazy Tea Partiers—would logically mean Brooks’ preferable Republican model might have produced some conservative results at some point. So where are those results? Why are Americans now faced with a $14 trillion national debt, much of it incurred under Republican presidents and especially the last one?

The last conservative to sit in the White House was Ronald Reagan—and even then spending and debt exploded. Why? A Democratically-controlled Congress promised Reagan that for every dollar in increased revenue it received, it would cut spending by two dollars. They lied. Reagan’s eventual tax cuts led to one of the longest peacetime economic booms in American history, but the government spending during that era also left us with a monstrous debt.

What many conservative Republicans have been saying during the debt ceiling debate is that they don’t trust Democratic promises this time around, which is why many in the GOP are demanding a balanced budget amendment which would force Washington to make significant spending reductions. Tea Party Republicans simply want a deal similar to what the Democrats once promised Reagan—only this time, they want it in writing.

For establishment man Brooks, GOP demands for fiscal sanity border on anarchy, and the NYT’s columnist sees the battle over the debt ceiling as a crucial moment for the Republicans’ future: “The struggles of the next few weeks are about what sort of party the G.O.P. is — a normal conservative party or an odd protest movement that has separated itself from normal governance…”

Brooks is correct that the more influence the Tea Party has over the GOP the more the party will resemble a protest movement. But any truly conservative Republican Party must be, to a large degree, just that. Barry Goldwater explained American conservatism in a nutshell in 1960: “I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size… My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them. It is not to inaugurate new programs, but to cancel the old ones…”

If the Democrats are the party of big government, there needs to be a party of small government to oppose them. Republicans have always pretended to be such a party. The only difference now is that thanks to the Tea Party, more Republicans than ever have stopped pretending.

Brooks is right. Such principled leadership is not “normal governance,” it is indeed “odd” behavior for Republicans, and their refusal to back down in the debt debate is indeed a “crucial” moment for the GOP’s future—because if Republicans don’t finally start standing up for conservative principles, their country, much less their party, might not have a future.