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The Democrats have to be bent over in derisive laughter as the national Republican party flagellates itself for irrelevance, backwardness and plain old stupidity. (Ow! Ow! Hee, hee, haw, haw!)

The party's Growth and Opportunity Project, in a report founded on extensive post-mortem interviews, consultations and focus group probing, says the party's image is that of a "scary," "narrow-minded" bunch, run by "stuffy old men." Accordingly, Republicans must "change course, modernize the party and learn once again how to appeal to more people, including those who share some but not all of our conservative principles."

That's at the national level. At the state level, what with Republican governors and lawmakers flexing muscle, reveling in new ideas and acts of leadership, GOP prospects brighten. Those national guys, nonetheless, get the hook or else a new mode of operation.

The report, presented Monday by GOP national chairman Reince Priebus, is damp with tears of mourning but alight with ideas -- e.g., embrace immigration reform, become "welcoming and inclusive" -- that could propel intra-party feuds for the next decade. A doddering analyst who cast his first presidential vote for Barry Goldwater believes he has seen this tent show before: hair-pulling, breast-beating and all. His thoughts flee to Heraclitus.

Dead these two millennia and more, Heraclitus was a pre-Socratic Greek thinker who was best remembered for his observations on the flux that characterizes human affairs. "The only thing permanent is change," he said. On it rushes. You can't step in the same river twice. Deal with it, he likely added on pertinent occasions.

The present occasion seems to be one of that kind. The U.S. of 2013 isn't the U.S. even of a decade ago when George W. Bush reigned in some splendor at the White House. The U. S. of 2023 and 2033 and on and on will look even less like the country we live in now -- ethnically, least of all. What do we do? Can conservative Republicans move forward while keeping conservative principles and American freedoms intact? To such a query I expect a round of boos and jeers. I also expect, in the end, some artful reconfiguring of what it means to be conservative.

It might be time to move from ancient Greece to 18th century Britain so as to remake the acquaintance of Edmund Burke, the acknowledged father of modern conservatism. As much as he disliked change for change's sake, Burke counseled that "We must all obey the great law of change ... the most powerful law of a nature." "All we can do, and that human wisdom can do," is to insist on "a gradual course" that accommodates varied interests. "We compensate, we reconcile, we balance." We do the best we can to smooth down the jagged corners of change, to keep our ideals and institutions intact.

An intraparty knockdown, drag-out is likely to commence the process: conservatives of one sort or another beating up on conservatives of another sort. Rand Paul libertarians against Karl Rove "realists," budget-cutters against economic growth types, each set of characters touting its claim to pre-eminence and respect.

Among the likeliest bones of contention: gay marriage, which Hillary Clinton and Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio have endorsed just in the last couple of days. I do not know the means of transforming a historic institution, more religious than secular, from one thing to another thing. Burke would not have approved. Neither, in all conscience, will scores of millions of Americans in the event wish turns politically to reality throughout the nation.

The times before us -- all of us, not just Republican conservatives but Americans of all stripes and none at all -- are perilous, as well as consternating. The shape of the old principles grows harder and harder to discern.

Say what any of us will about the Growth and Opportunity Project and its objectives -- it invites us to an essential task: figuring out what's essential in our national life, then figuring out, amid all dangers, how to keep it looking bright.

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