Running through this account of domestic and national-security issues is an attitude toward public life and toward public discourse. Tone and bearing are terribly undervalued commodities in American politics. On the whole, people drawn to a party like to feel that those representing the party are both amiable and peaceable. This hardly precludes conviction and tough-mindedness when it comes to articulating policy. Democracy was designed for disagreement, and the proper role of an opposition party is to oppose. But anger, personal attack, and extreme language do nothing to expand the appeal of a party in trouble.

Unfortunately, this point has been lost on some members of the Religious Right, whose scolding approach has created a significant backlash, especially among young people (including young Christians). It has also been lost on the party’s more abrasive populists, with their habit of pitting the heartland—aka the “real” America—against the denizens of the coasts. This not only vitiates their own claim to seriousness; it almost willfully alienates the very groups and regions that Republicans need to attract. There is no magic formula when it comes to dealing with such matters of tone, temperament, and the right use of language. They are admittedly delicate things to measure, but they are no less crucial for that…

Often, for an opposition party, the best counsel is patience and consistency. Many Republicans, hankering for a banner around which to rally, talk of a “return to Reagan.” The idea is attractive because Reagan was attractive. But as a strategy, it hardly suffices. The electorate that gave its vote to Reagan in the 1980s has changed and is continuing to change, demographically and generationally. And the ills of the GOP are not so trivial or temporary as to be healable by invoking a new-old face. Republican leaders need leeway to reshape the appeal of their tarnished institution, just as Reagan did, patiently and consistently, over the years he spent preparing his run for the presidency. The need of the moment is not for greater “ideological purity” (a phrase which Reagan himself abhorred) but for greater clarity; not for louder voices but for more thoughtful and persuasive ones; not for retrenchment but for outreach; not for building a bridge to the past but for creativity and innovation for the moment and for the future.