Having lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, Republicans plunged Wednesday into an intense period of self-examination, blame-setting and testy debate over whether their party needs serious change or just some minor tweaks…

“The Republican Party is exactly right on the issues,” said Terry Holt, a veteran GOP strategist with close ties to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. The party mainly needs to nominate candidates who can relate to average Americans better than multimillionaire Mitt Romney did, Holt said.

Some other Republicans, however, see bigger problems. The party must shed its “absolutism on issues like tax increases,” which congressional lawmakers oppose at virtually every level, said John Ullyot, a former Republican Senate aide.

“The only way the party is going to move more to the middle is when we get sick of losing,” he said.

Despite spending a billion dollars on the presidential contest, despite unprecedented “ground game” efforts by more outside conservative groups than ever, despite having a president with a horrid record to run against, the Republican presidential ticket looks like it garnered even fewer votes than G. W. Bush did in 2004, when something like 15 million more people now call the United States home than just eight years ago. The wonderful Bush effort then should have been a floor, not a ceiling.

Plus, the Senate results were atrocious. Bright new conservatives lost. Foot-in-mouth conservatives lost. Establishment retreads lost. Moderates lost. Way too many people lost, even in solidly “red” states. Republicans obviously are missing something.

The whole country is in for a rough, rocky, even frightening four years. Conservatives and Republicans must refuse to break key principles — but other than that, politically speaking, we need to take a little time to reassess. We’re doing something very, very wrong, or maybe many “somethings.”

After supporting Mitt Romney in 2008, some of you may recall, I ran off with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie midway through Obama’s first term for precisely that reason: The near-impossibility of beating an incumbent president. Christie seemed like the kind of once-in-a-lifetime star who could pull a Reagan upset against an incumbent president.

But I was wrong. Romney was the perfect candidate, and he was the president this country needed right now. It’s less disheartening that a president who wrecked American health care, quadrupled gas prices, added $6 trillion to the national debt and gave us an 8 percent unemployment rate can squeak out re-election than that America will never have Romney as our president.

Indeed, Romney is one of the best presidential candidates the Republicans have ever fielded. Blaming the candidate may be fun, but it’s delusional and won’t help us avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

Jenny Beth Martin of Tea Party Patriots said Romney failed to make the kind of strong case for conservatism that would have won the election.

She described Romney as a “weak, moderate candidate hand-picked by the country club elite Republican establishment.”

“They didn’t see a clear distinction so they went with what they know,” she said of voters.

“It should have been a landslide if Romney had run as a true conservative,” said Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center.

Blame for this debacle is widely shared. Mitt Romney made many mistakes in this campaign. Yet with the exception of his failure to press the case against Obamacare — a failure partly explained but not excused by his own record on health care — those mistakes reflected party-wide decisions. The party hasn’t kept up with the political technologies Democrats are using. More important, Republicans from the top to the bottom of the ticket did little to make the case that conservative policies would make the broad mass of the public better off. It wasn’t a theme of the convention in Tampa, for example, or a consistent theme in Republican ads.

Most of the post-election discussion, we can predict, will dwell on the predictable demographic divides of sex, race, and age. Most of this conversation will be unproductive. Until conservatives devise a domestic agenda, and a way to sell it, that links small-government principles to attractive results, they are going to have a hard time improving their standing with women, Latinos, white men, or young people. And conservatives would be deeply unwise to count on the mere availability of charismatic young conservative officials to make up for that problem.

I’ve been saying for years that the GOP has run tax cuts out as a campaign plank–indeed, they’re now over the cliff and about to plunge while Roadrunner chortles. They’ve lost on gay marriage, and they seem to have a penchant for running their mouth about rape. The decline in the proportion of married women in the electorate hurts, since single women are much more supportive of a large welfare state than are their married sisters. So does the growth of the latino vote. They’re going to eventually face defense cuts which will make the hawks madder than hell. And they’ve now nominated two candidates who have put forward almost nothing that couldn’t be found in Reagan’s 1980 platform. The party desperately needs some new ideas to sell to the American public.

But I am highly skeptical that last night means they’ve gone into some sort of permanent decline. It was a close election in which Obama lost states that he carried in 2012. The Democratic bench is very weak–the current leading candidates to succeed Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, will be 69 and 74 in 2016. And Obama is going to have to preside over some very, very tough choices. We can’t borrow a trillion dollars a year for another four years. Nor can we get all the money from Republican constituencies; they just don’t have enough of the stuff. Whoever’s ox Obama chooses to gore will probably be a considerably less enthusiastic coalition member come 2016.

The morning after, everybody was saying that the Republican Party was in deep trouble: too much Tea Party; too few minorities, young people, and women. Don’t be so sure. In 2016, the Republican nominee will almost certainly be more dynamic and charming onstage than Romney, and the Democratic nominee will almost certainly be less inspiring than Obama. The economy, one hopes, will be better than it is now, and that will mean that voters’ natural impulse to look for government’s help during times of trouble will be reduced. The country won’t be mired in an unpopular Republican-originated war. In this campaign, Obama devoted most of his energies to making a case against Romney, not to building public support for his and his party’s agenda, and now a closely divided Washington will almost certainly deny him the chance to build a policy case for the next Democratic nominee. The Republicans will take every opportunity to build an argument that the Democrats are wild over-taxers and over-spenders, without letting them tax for and spend on programs that would obviously build gratitude and loyalty among middle-class voters.

Romney’s performance shows us the baseline level of what the national Republican apparatus, when fully funded and motivated, can achieve—and, compared to 2008, that level is rising.

“We need a third party to save this country,” Cain told American Family Radio host Bryan Fischer. “This country is in trouble and it is clear that neither party — is going to fix the problems we face.”

Cain agreed with Fischer’s assessment that conservatives are growing tired of being ignored by Republican party leadership — and that many believe the GOP no longer speaks for them…

He said the new party could be made up of not only disenfranchised Republicans — but also Democrats.

“He had a serious plan for fixing real problems. He concentrated on jobs, that was the important issue. He concentrated on the economy, we have more than 8% unemployment. People are suffering, the country is in disarray. If Mitt Romney cannot win in this economy, then the tipping point has been reached. We have more takers than makers and it’s over. There is no hope.”

“I went to bed last night thinking we are outnumbered,” Limbaugh concluded. “I went to bed last night thinking we’ve lost the country. I don’t know how else you look at this.”