"The Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason, would finally provide democracy with its philosophical underpinnings. The 17th and 18th centuries produced a wave of prominent thinkers espousing political systems based on what they called "the social contract." Government, they theorized, was a sort of legal agreement between the rulers and the ruled, the terms of which were binding on both parties. It was a groundbreaking theory. All they needed now was some country dumb enough to try it before the King found out and had them all drawn and quartered." - Jon Stewart's America: A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction
The social contract that Mr. Stewart's book speaks of is one of the fundamentals of our government. The differences in ideas between today's political parties are a result of varied interpretations of that "legal agreement" between the rulers and the ruled. In some elections, these ideological differences are quite clear, while in others (like the one to be held in a week's time) - not as much. As I am not John Adams, I cannot profess to be an authority on political discourse, but I try to base my opinions on fact (a basic concept, by the way, that many bankers and politicians should consider in their decision making processes.)
That said, there was a time when "conservative," believe it or not, did not mean 'God-fearing gun-toters'. Rather, it meant people who were basically interested in a limited federal government (this means no creepy big-brotherness), personal responsibility, and an attention to (and scholarship of) the ideas our Founding Fathers hammered out in documents like, say, the Constitution, or the Federalist Papers. I once read a statement from Garrison Keillor regarding the Republican party, specifically, that expresses the point more eloquently:
"Something has gone wrong with the Republican Party. Once it was the party of pragmatic Main Street businessmen in steel-rimmed spectacles who decried profligacy and waste, were devoted to their communities, and supported the kind of prosperity that raises all ships. Now it's the number one reason why the rest of the world thinks we're deaf, dumb, and dangerous."
Senator McCain has found himself at the end of a campaign of almost Marx-brothers-esque heights in terms of ridiculousness. He garbles his ideas and speeches, he makes "erratic" shifts in attitude and policy, and he attempts "bold" moves to convince the public that he's a "maverick" (maybe he should have chosen Mel Gibson as his running mate), while trying to feign "conservatism" enough to convince the GOP that they didn't make a mistake in picking him as their candidate. Remember the old adage about "if you try to please all the people all the time you're likely not to please any of them any of the time?"
I feel like (again this is just my opinion, I don't claim to know everything) in his struggle to be the candidate for the conservatives, but at the same time be his "bi-partisan", maverick-y self, McCain's policy pronouncements have lost all tenor. The only way to attempt to gauge decisions he might make as president is not to listen to his campaign rhetoric, but to look at his record as a statesman. There, the only things we have to go on are the fact that he sided with George Bush the infamous 90 % of the time (which is part of how the party got where it is in the first place), and the reputation he has for being bi-partisan.