After their defeat in the Presidential election, Republicans are engaging in considerable soul searching to determine what went wrong. I'm reminded of what Gov. Nelson Rockefeller said in June, 1964, when asked why he lost the California Republican Primary: "I didn't get enough votes." I didn't vote for the governor but I appreciated his straightforwardness. And what he said about election defeats is as true as ever.

Last week the Republican National Committee (RNC) issued a critical 98-page report to answer its most compelling question by explaining or attempting to why the GOP lost in 2012. It probably didn't surprise many that the party's defeat was attributed to failures in messaging, tactics and organization, rather than to its fundamental principles and policies.

Truth to tell, Republican principles were on full display at the Republican National Convention last summer. Speaker after speaker extolled the virtues of limited government, free enterprise and national security, and no less reliance upon God. The Democrats sang the praises of big government, managed economy and national weakness, and had to be forced to accept a reference to God in their platform.

The fact is that the Republican Party's goals delight some and repel others, but it can usually count on its "base" to provide approximately 80 percent of its adherents and 40 percent of the total electorate. Not surprisingly, the Republicans had great difficulty appealing to the growing number of citizens dependent on government programs and/or paying no income tax. But an estimated three to six million of those who voted for John McCain in 2008 did not show up to vote for Mitt Romney in 2012.

The recurring temptation of Republican candidates is to compromise their principles to win elections; the recurring temptation of Republican voters is to make the perfect the enemy of the good. Thus, while GOP candidates generally seek strenuously to make themselves appealing to people who are unlikely to vote for them, much of the base, like shoppers looking for the best bargain or suitors looking for the perfect mate, at times righteously withholds its support.

The truth is, a political party's success depends as much, if not more, on circumstances than its messaging, tactics or organization. For years, anti-slavery Americans had to accept the continuance of that infernal institution because it was protected by the Constitution and sanctioned by public opinion. Only when Democrats attempted to remove the barriers to slavery's expansion to the free states was it possible to arouse public opinion against slavery.

Moreover, it is a sad fact that government by the people invariably moves slowly, facing its most serious problems only when conditions have become so dire that leaders, if and when they are empowered by public opinion, finally act. That may well be the case with our state and federal debt crisis, which apparently will continue to worsen until more people are alarmed than complacent. Similar reckonings may be in order with regard to the deterioration of our families and our national defenses.

Conservatives in the Republican Party see themselves as the party's conscience, but their grounding in first principles cannot be taken for granted. Too often, they make the mistake of being merely contrary to liberal Democrat principles and policies rather than opposed root and branch. For many of them accept the Democrats' corrupt understanding of equality and liberty and throw out the baby with the bath water.

For example, the late Judge Robert Bork was a great hero to conservatives for his strict textual interpretation of the Constitution during hearings for his ill-fated appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987. But the basis for his otherwise commendable jurisprudence was an unprincipled skepticism about the natural rights political philosophy which actually underlies the Constitution.

Just last week syndicated conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg decided to throw in the towel on gay marriage, based on no discernible principle other than "live and let live." But the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln opposed polygamy no less than slavery as one of the "twin relics of barbarism."

Many conservatives believe that the Republican Party is conservative only because they are active within it, failing to understand that the party's origins and historic role have been to "conserve" our political, economic and social institutions for all generations. To that end, as important as messaging, tactics and organization, if not more so, is Americans' political education in what is fast fading from their memory.

Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of " Taking Journalism Seriously: 'Objectivity' as a Partisan Cause" (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at