All kinds of prominent national figures are characterizing the 2012 presidential election as a key turning point, and in his latest column, E.J. Dionne Jr. agrees.

For the first time since Barry Goldwater made the effort in 1964, the Republican Party is taking a run at overturning the consensus that has governed U.S. political life since the Progressive era.

Obama is defending a tradition that sees government as an essential actor in the nation’s economy, a guarantor of fair rules of competition, a countervailing force against excessive private power, a check on the inequalities that capitalism can produce, and an instrument that can open opportunity for those born without great advantages.

Today’s Republicans cast the federal government as an oppressive force, a drag on the economy and an enemy of private initiative…. The GOP is engaged in a wholesale effort to redefine the government help that Americans take for granted as an effort to create a radically new, statist society. […]

Republicans are increasingly inclined to argue that any redistribution (and Social Security, Medicare, student loans, veterans benefits and food stamps are all redistributive) is but a step down the road to some radically egalitarian dystopia.

Given all of this, Dionne concludes that it’s Obama who’ll be “the conservative” candidate, not in the sense of a left vs. right construct, but in the sense that the president wants to conserve the foundations of the American government that have served the nation well over the last eight decades.

Dionne is, of course, completely right. We all use words like “liberal” and “conservative” in describing contemporary political disputes, but the words have lost their traditional meanings. There is, after all, nothing Burkean about the Republican presidential field — these are, in a literal sense, radical candidates with no real interest in conserving much of anything.

For example, Mitt Romney is supposed to be, in David Brooks’ terms, “the serious one” in the GOP field. But Romney also wants to privatize Social Security, eliminate Medicare, repeal all Wall Street reform safeguards, and attack Iran. When it comes to debt reduction, Romney believes a 10-to-1 ratio for spending cuts to tax revenue is too liberal, and he considers asking the wealthy to pay Clinton-era tax rates to be on par with communism.

And to many, Romney is seen as the moderate.

It’s against this backdrop that Dionne believes Obama “is the candidate defending the modestly redistributive and regulatory government the country has relied on since the New Deal.” For those who consider themselves “conservative,” at least in the traditional sense of the word, there’s not much to like in the Republican presidential field.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.