But this wasn’t some sort of Sister Souljah moment, where Romney called out his fellow conservatives in order to curry favor with the center. Rather, what he did was clarify, elevate and translate. He clarified what kind of tax reformer he would be, by promising that revenue neutrality would take priority over sweeping cuts for the rich — a premise that plenty of Republicans are already happy to accept. He elevated an argument that’s increasingly popular among conservative wonks — that the Dodd-Frank financial reform perpetuates “too big to fail” — and used it to make a populist case against the president. And he translated the basic free-market vision to a nonideological audience, by talking more about decent jobs than heroic job creators, and more about the struggling middle class than about the supposedly persecuted John Galts…

One debate does not such a leader make. But at the very least, the fact that Romney’s strategy worked so effectively last Wednesday — that it made him seem mainstream and appealing while also winning him plaudits from almost every sort of conservative — suggests that the Republican Party can actually be led, and that its politicians don’t have to be prisoners of talking points and groupthink.

Indeed, the party may actually be ripe for such leadership. Cut through the Kabuki narratives on the contemporary right — the grass roots versus the establishment, the True Conservatives versus the RINOs — and you’ll find that what conservatism actually stands for, issue by issue and policy by policy, is more up for grabs than at any point since the Reagan revolution.