"The Conservative Crackup," Slate's dialogue between conservative intellectuals about the meaning of this year's bruising GOP electoral defeat, makes for truly insightful reading. The attendant conversation in The Fray provides an excellent source of further illumination on the problems facing the GOP as it regroups from its recent losses.
One of the first stumbling blocks to fruitful conversation seems to be a lack of common understanding of which topic is under discussion. As Illinichief points out, "conservatism" and the GOP aren't necessarily linked. "Conservatism" describes a (hotly contested) core set of political values that orders one's priorities and shapes the means by which they are obtained. The Republican Party, however, is an empty vessel into which any American may pour their political identity, ambition, and votes. The discussion, therefore, is marked by an elementary division between task and tool—a schism which pulls the conversation in two very different directions.
For those debating "conservatism," the salient questions are "what should be conserved" and who can be persuaded to join the cause of protecting it? This fundamental contradiction between "social conservatives" and "fiscal conservatives" animates most of the discussion. Jshankel best captures the cost of this unresolved dispute among self-styled conservatives:
The contradiction between social conservatism and small-government libertarianism hasn't so much lost conservative voters as it has boggled the compass. When you're arguing on the one hand that government is too blunt an instrument to reasonably regulate finances or the environment, but on the other hand the nanny-state knows best when it comes to terminating a pregnancy or setting limits on scientific research, you're bound to get lost in the woods
Given the slant of Slate's readership, it should come as no surprise that smart advocates for jettisoning moral conservatives abound in The Fray. One Democrat, jwschmidt, helpfully suggests that if the Republican Party "find[s] a non-crackpot version of Ron Paul, you guys can have a chance for my vote." Rocket88 compares the two major parties and finds recent Democratic success attributable to the marginalization of their base. Many readers join endorendil in calling for a "circular firing squad" to drive the religious right from the Republican tent.
The wisdom of this advice is called into question, however, by other right-leaning "small government conservatives." As this post from jbtowers or this testimonial from Republican atheist Ranson suggest, a play for libertarians at this point may simply be a case of closing the barn door after the cows have escaped:
I'm still currently registered Republican, though that's only as long as my switch to "independent" takes to process. There's no question that I feel the party left me behind, rather than the other way around. I'll admit that I have loosened up with age, but I viewed the party as one of fiscal and personal responsibility, reasonable exercise of strength in foreign policy, advancing science and technology, and a focus on individualism and liberty. The party before me today in no way resembles that ideal. It is strangled by the religious right with an irrational focus on abortion and homophobia, is fiscally irresponsible on an enormous scale, idiotic in terms of foreign relations, anti-science to a degree that would be comical were it not frightening, and working to curtail every civil liberty they can get their hands on (except the right to own a weapon).
On a more constructive note, Mercedes1254 thinks conservatives would do well to focus on American education, an approach which EMStoveken argues would lay the foundation of a new conservative majority. DirtyBird lays out a fairly comprehensive and persuasive conservative agenda for the opposition party, despite a confessed lack of conservative ideas for how to deal with healthcare.
Many readers reject the premise that extensive Republican soul-searching is called for. Mutatis Mutandis convincingly argues that this election is less of a setback for conservatives than it seems. CaLaywer, a Democrat, even sees a route to Republican victory in California far shorter than you might suspect. Lawdawg74 thinks the Republican Party is just one transcendent leader away from its next Presidential victory.
If you're willing to head into the weeds of specific issues, the_slasher14 has some excellent posts on tax cuts here and here. Foohog, a Republican Frayster, indicts his party for backing the wrong kind of tax cuts. Johnzep explains why "Republicans lost the debate on taxes." On education, most of the best arguments seem to call for complacency. Other good posts on education can be found here, here, and here. Orion38 injects some realism based on his observation that half of everyone will always rank below average: "No matter how many engineers we crank out, no one will hire them if Chinese engineers can do the same job for 1/10 the cost." I also recommend keeping an eye out for posts from BenK, consistently one of the Fray's smartest conservative posters.