There’s this funny thing that “conservative” is seen as a compliment, even coming from political liberals. For example, Nicholas Lemann writes in the New Yorker that Karl Rove “was never a real conservative, except in the liberal-hating sense, because the idea that everybody who participates in politics expects something from government was at the heart of his thinking.” This seems to me to be a funny definition of “conservative.” I would think a conservative would be realistic enough to expect that “everybody who participates in politics expects something from government.” To continue, I’d think a conservative would want to preserve the existing social order as much as possible. There are different flavors of this; Rove’s involves reducing taxes and business regulations, both of which seem like pretty mainstream conservative goals. I’m not saying that Lemann or others should necessarily support Rove–one might instead prefer goals such as redistribution, environmental protection, etc.–but I don’t see how you can say that Rove was never a “real conservative.”
In general, I think these sorts of labels are a topic worth studying: how do words like “conservative” get used differently at different times, and by people of different political persuasions.