Over the long run, the most important impact of an election is not on the winning party but on the loser. Winners feel confirmed in staying the course they're on. Losing parties — or, at least, the ones intent on winning again someday — are moved to figure out what they did wrong and how they must change.
After losing throughout the 1930s and '40s, Republicans finally came to terms with the New Deal and elected Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. Democrats lost three elections in the 1980s and did a lot of rethinking inspired by Bill Clinton, who won the White House in 1992. In Britain, the Labor Party learned a great deal during its exile from power in the Margaret Thatcher years. The same thing happened to the Conservatives during Tony Blair's long run.
The American conservative movement and the Republican Party it controls were stunned by President Obama's victory last month. The depth of their astonishment was itself a sign of how much they misunderstood the country they proposed to lead. Yet the shock has pushed many conservatives to think at least mildly heretical thoughts.
In particular, some are realizing that the tea party surge of 2010 was akin to an amphetamine rush — it produced instant gratification but left the conservative brand tarnished by extremism on both social and economic issues. Within two years, the tea party high gave way to a crash.
It's true that the early signs of conservative evolution are superficial and largely rhetorical. The right wing's supporters are already threatening primaries against House and Senate Republicans who offer even a hint of apostasy when it comes to raising taxes in any budget deal. Many Republicans still fear challenges from their right far more than defeat in an election by a Democrat.
Nonetheless, rhetorical shifts often presage substantive changes because they are the first and easiest steps along the revisionist path. And on Tuesday, three prominent Republicans took the plunge.
At a dinner in honor of the late Jack Kemp — a big tax-cutter who also had a big heart — Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Marco Rubio both worked hard to back the party away from the damage done by Mitt Romney's comments on the supposedly dependent 47 percent and the broader hostility shown toward government by a conservatism inflected by tea party thinking.
Ryan spoke gracious words about Romney, the man who made him his vice presidential running mate. But the implicit criticism of Romney's theory was unmistakable. Kemp, Ryan said, "hated the idea that any part of America could be written off." Republicans, Ryan said, must "carry on and keep fighting for the American Idea — the belief that everyone should have the opportunity to rise, to escape from poverty." He also said: "Government must act for the common good, while leaving private groups free to do the work that only they can do."
Rubio dubbed his speech a discourse on "middle-class opportunity" and distanced himself from the GOP's obsession with giving succor to the very wealthy. "Every country in the world has rich people," Rubio said. "But only a few places have achieved a vibrant and stable middle class. And in the history of the world, none has been more vibrant and more stable than the great American middle class."
Rubio also walked a new and more careful line on government. "Government has a role to play," he said, "and we must make sure that it does its part." Then, making sure he stayed inside the conservative tent, Rubio added: "But it's a supporting role, to help create the conditions that enable prosperity in our private economy."
For good measure, former President George W. Bush tried to push his party back toward moderation on immigration, using a speech in Texas to urge that the issue be approached with "a benevolent spirit" mindful of "the contribution of immigrants."
There's ample reason to remain skeptical about how far conservatives will go in challenging themselves. Substantively, neither Ryan nor Rubio threw much conservative orthodoxy overboard.
And actions matter more than words. It's not encouraging that a large group of Republican senators blocked ratification of the international treaty on the rights of the disabled. Then there's the budget. If Republicans can't accept even a modest increase in tax rates on the best-off Americans, it's hard to take their proclamations of a new day seriously.
Still, elections are two-by-fours, and many conservatives seem to realize the need to understand what just hit them.
Email E.J. Dionne at email@example.com.