WASHINGTON -- If the 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."
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?'
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."
The only ones who didn't seem to think there was a problem, in fact, were Mitt 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. His 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.
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.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.
(c) 2013, Washington Post Writers Group