Doubtless mistakes were made, as they say, at the political level in 2012. But the real work of conservatives now is not at that superficial, topsoil level, it is in the deeper soil of policy and the tap root of values where conservatives need to toil now. Americans should be presented with a deeper and more compelling narrative about the policy choices facing the country and the problems the present path will create. It is less about an extreme makeover and more about deepening its own policy message and clarifying its own values. Otherwise, why bother to become merely a pale version of liberalism simply to broaden your appeal and win?

For example, there is a serious conversation to be had about the family, one that is not reduced merely to pro-life and pro-choice sound bites, one that doesn’t begin and end with same-sex marriage. Liberal Harvard Professor Daniel Patrick Moynihan pointed out the importance of a stable family life to the health of the republic in the 1960’s, and many have noted the troublesome decline of family stability and the birthrate in Europe. That conversation needs to take place in a serious way here in America. What family values are entirely personal, and which affect the public good? This question of values is one that conservatives should appropriately raise, but in a thoughtful way.

There is a real debate to be had about the role of government. Here my Hoover Institution colleague Peter Berkowitz rightly points out that conservatives have mistakenly allowed the debate to be about big versus small government. Government is big and it isn’t likely to shrink much. The real debate is about the role of government, not merely its size. It’s about limited government, not just big government.