WASHINGTON -- If this week's Conservative Political Action Conference were a papal conclave, black smoke would be billowing from the chimney at the Gaylord Convention Center.
The cardinals of the conservative movement, assembling for their annual confab, skipped the usual recitations of their common creed in favor of an emotional and inconclusive argument over what had gone wrong with their movement, how it could be fixed, and who, in a puff of white smoke, could lead them to spiritual renewal.
Was the problem technological inferiority? Greedy consultants? Lackluster candidates? Failure to reach women, Latinos or Asians? Was the media to blame? A muddled message? Or were they just not conservative enough?
"The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered," diagnosed Sen. Rand Paul, the libertarian ophthalmologist from Kentucky. Young voters "want leaders that won't feed them a line of crap," he said.
"Unfortunately," contributed Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, "some of our friends and allies in the conservative movement have folded." CPAC even invited Donald Trump to inform them that "the Republican Party is in serious trouble" and that "you're on a suicide mission" on immigration policy. (His latest brainstorm: Take $1.5 trillion from Iraq to "pay ourselves back" for war costs.)
Usually, CPAC is a time for the movement faithful to enjoy a diet of red-meat speeches that all sound the same. But this time they also tasted the clumpy quinoa of self-doubt and the curdled soymilk of recrimination.
The only possibility that wasn't seriously entertained by the attendees was the most obvious: that the voters aren't buying the conservative policies Republicans have been selling. But beyond this prominent omission, the CPAC agenda could be described as a three-day group therapy session. Among the topics for discussion:
"Lessons they have learned and we haven't."
"What is a conservative foreign policy?"
"Bringing tolerance out of the closet."
"Are you sick and tired of being called a racist?"
"Has Atlas shrugged?'
"CSI Washington, D.C.: November 2012 autopsy."
At a breakout session titled "Should we shoot all the consultants now?" the participants shouted at each other as they sorted out what has gone wrong.
Republican strategist Matt Schlapp, the moderator, said that after the "devastating" losses of 2012 "we feel like we're on the edge, getting pushed over." Strategist Jeff Roe, whose candidate lost a Senate seat in Indiana, posited that "we need to be smarter" because "our electorate has changed."
Republican National Committee official Morton Blackwell assured the audience that the party's post-mortem, to be released Monday, would be a quality product. But Fox News' Pat Caddell said the report would be a "whitewash," and he cast blame at Mitt Romney ("single worst campaign in the history of the United States"), Romney adviser Stuart Stevens ("threw the election"), Karl Rove's super-PAC ("what a disaster") and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell ("if you can't win, get the hell gone"). "The Republican Party," Caddell said, "is headed the way of the Whigs."
The only ones who didn't seem to think there was a problem, in fact, were Romney himself ("I utterly reject pessimism," he said in his bland pep talk to CPAC) and Republican officials trying to keep their jobs.
"I'm a little tired of the hand-wringing," proclaimed McConnell. "I know folks have a lot of opinions about what happened in November. But seriously, how many conferences and lunch panels do we really need to have about it? I'm starting to wonder if the caterers' union is behind it."
McConnell's advice was to "put this election behind us" quickly. "If you get your tail whipped, you don't whine about it. You don't look for somebody to blame. You stand up and you punch back."
The CPAC conservatives were isolated -- literally: Instead of the usual in-town location at the Marriott in Woodley Park, CPAC assembled at the Gaylord, at out-of-the-way National Harbor in Maryland. Omitted from the invite list were some of the more popular national Republicans, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, for being insufficiently doctrinaire.
The result was a conservative caricature, to judge from the CPAC exhibit hall: an NRA laser-shooting tent, two life-size Transformer action figures marching about, the Right to Life's larger-than-life fetus photos, and a profusion of stickers and posters ("I'm a bitter gun owner and I vote").
On the ballroom stage, the soul-searching continued.
"Maybe conservatives could get a sense of humor," proposed publisher Tucker Carlson.
"You'd be amazed at what just knowing 50 words of Spanish will do," suggested journalist John Fund.
Yep, that should do it.