Conservatives are offering a curious explanation for the drubbing they took at the polls: they blame the Republicans. The 2006 elections were not a conservative defeat, you see; they were a Republican one, a rejection of a party that had strayed too far from the conservative path. John McCain put the point nicely: “Americans had elected us to change government, and they rejected us because they believed government had changed us.”

The corollary is that McCain—along with many other, more reliable conservative spokesmen—believes that most Americans remain quietly conservative. But this latent center-right majority, he argues, needs reassuring that in 2008 the GOP will once again hew to true-blue (pardon the term) conservative principles.

In their hearts, he knows they’re Right. Such a faith, though gratifying, is bound to be disappointed. If conservatism means being decent and patriotic, then of course, nearly all Americans are fuzzily conservative. But that doesn’t tell you much about how they vote, which in recent years has been in roughly equal numbers for Democrats and Republicans. The notion that a steady conservative majority exists, waiting only to be activated by the right Republican appeal, thus makes for bad GOP strategy. It lures Republicans into thinking their job is easier than it is, by disguising the hard truth that victory still depends on persuading, not merely reminding, a crucial segment of the electorate to think conservative and vote Republican.

But the idea that conservatives long ago won the battle for public opinion, and that the GOP has only to collect on their victory, runs afoul of a deeper problem, which is that the definition of conservatism is more clearly up for grabs than at any time since the end of the Cold War. McCain recognizes this, inasmuch as his presidential candidacy depends on offering his own twist on the term.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, conservatism lost the urgent motivation provided by anti-Communism. Many predicted a crack-up, but what actually ensued was a series of flirtations with new, or at least newly assertive, right-wing elements. Upward floated the balloons of civil society conservatism (an anticipation of the compassionate conservatism to come), “third wave” conservatism (technology to the rescue), and national greatness conservatism (McCain was an early enthusiast). Some traveled farther than others, but each descended under the weight of its own limitations and the pressure of events.

Libertarianism, emboldened by socialism’s pell-mell retreat, enjoyed its moment, too, though less than one might have expected. Communism’s collapse in Eastern Europe did not translate directly into capitalism’s triumph there; and in America, the boom of the 1980s and 1990s, staggered but not stopped by a recession and 9/11, proved vigorous enough to finance both federal tax cuts and benefit increases, at least temporarily. Prosperity, strangely enough, made libertarianism less compelling.

Into this disorderly scene strode George W. Bush, touting a compassionate conservatism that accepted the present size of government (or at least resolved to stop arguing about it) and strove to build an enduring Republican majority by increments, appealing to soccer-cum-security moms, immigrants, and minorities. Though the strategy contributed to victory in several elections, it came with high costs. Literally: the new prescription drug entitlement will cost untold billions (though it will save some hospitalization costs, too). More important in the short term, compassionate conservatism eviscerated the GOP’s reform ambitions. By abandoning the public case for limited government, Bush’s spiritless conservatism left the administration, and especially Congress, adrift and spendthrift.

Even more acutely, there is confusion now over conservative foreign policy. The Bush Doctrine’s emphasis on preventive war and global democratization has come to define right-wing foreign policy to many Americans, and to nearly all Europeans. This misimpression has been heightened by the willingness of most conservative journals in this country to swallow their misgivings and follow the administration in its impromptu pursuit of democracy in Iraq. Yet conservative objections, not all of them honorable, reassert themselves in the wake of Iraq’s intractable difficulties—and the American voters’ impatience with the whole scene.

What does it signify, then, to demand that Republicans return to the conservative path? It’s time for conservatives to admit the need to rethink and clarify their own precepts. To be sure, there are verities to which the wise and good may always repair, and conservatism is distinguished by its reverence for them. But these must be relearned in every generation, restated in the idiom of life, and applied to new circumstances. The challenge is as exhilarating as it is serious. Far from being a cause for despair, conservatism’s perplexities may contribute to making this the most illuminating political season in 30 years.