President Obama’s campaign manager Jim Messina’s confession that the Democrats had to win the election on “little things “ (that is, pandering to each constituent group and winning on campaign mechanics and a negative ad barrage) is refreshing and should disabuse the Democrats of the notion that there is a mandate to do, well, anything in particular.

Obama could have run on a reform agenda (like Mitt Romney) or could have come up with a tax plan (like Romney) or an entitlement reform scheme (like Romney) or a comprehensive immigration plan (like Romney should have but didn’t), but he chose to win on the small things. He’s not in a particularly good position then to argue that the voters are with him on any specific policy initiative. It’s hard to govern when your campaign was a successful operation in character assassination, but the Democrats have only themselves to blame. Perhaps Obama’s media mates should have exerted as much pressure on him to devise an agenda as they did pleading with Romney to specify the base-broadeners in his tax plan.

The current contrast between Democrats and Republicans in the idea department and in policy development realm is stark in some respects. Democrats, having won by feeding its base cotton candy, now is in no mood to tell them to eat peas. They won with class warfare so they aren’t about to turn into creative policy makers.

We see, for example, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) is back egging on Congress to take the country into a recession unless tax rates are raised on the rich. A spokesman for Speaker of the House John Boehner (who knows Murray will not be in the vicinity of any real deal making) was restrained in response. Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith e-mailed me, “The Speaker outlined a responsible path forward for averting the fiscal cliff without raising tax rates. Threatening to drive the economy over the cliff isn’t helpful if the goal is finding common ground.” Fortunately, the president didn’t take Murray’s position on Friday, essentially cutting the legs out from under her.

The benefit of losing, and losing badly, in a national election is that it affords the party an opportunity to reconsider reflexive policies and move the old guard out of the way. The anti-gay marriage, anti-immigration reform, anti-everything-beyond-the-hard-core-base advocates are in a weakened state while voices urging an end to the era of cluelessness have the upper hand. We see an effort already underway among determined elected officials and conservative pundits to revamp and not simply, like an American tourist in Europe, scream louder in the hopes of being understood.

Republicans now have a premium on reality-based politics and governance. As George Will noted, “Most voters already favor less punitive immigration policies than the ones angrily advocated by clenched-fist Republicans unwilling to acknowledge that immigrating — risking uncertainty for personal and family betterment — is an entrepreneurial act. The speed with which civil unions and same-sex marriage have become debatable topics and even mainstream policies is astonishing. As is conservatives’ failure to recognize this: They need not endorse such policies, but neither need they despise those, such as young people, who favor them.”

It is the willingness to do what is possible and put aside what is outmoded, unhelpful and simply not politically viable that will help Republicans on the road back. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), a rising congressional leader, appeared on CNN ‘s “State of the Union” and had it half right. She told viewers: “Well, I don’t think it’s about the Republican Party needing to become more moderate. I really believe it’s the Republican Party becoming more modern, and whether it’s Hispanics, whether it’s women, whether it’s young people, the Republican Party has to make it a priority to take our values, take our vision to every corner of this country, to every demographic group, and I am confident that we can do it. . . . Well, it’s not about changing our values and our principles, though. It is about bringing them so that people understand them in the 21st Century and how it makes us strong.”

Actually it is about figuring out what is central to the conservative vision and what is not. It is about whether opposition to immigration reform and gay marriage is incompatible with conservatism or simply incompatible with reality. The key for Republicans in the next few years is to take advantage of an opportunity in which the other side has become the party of small stuff and, instead, to offer and govern with a big, bold inclusive vision that at its heart is about limited but effective government, freedom and responsible national security policy.