The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is taking a lot of guff, rightly so, I think, from conservatives over excluding New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and groups like GOProud from its gathering. When the newest conservative hero, Dr. Ben Carson, tells you you’ve screwed up, maybe it is time to rethink the strategy of systematically shrinking the tent.

Elephants heading for the big tent (Alex Wong, Getty Images).

As the National Review editors argue:

CPAC’s inviting GOProud to participate again would not now, as it did not at earlier conferences, imply its endorsement of any particular policies regarding gays, just as CPAC’s invitation to Chris Hayes to speak on a panel does not imply its endorsement of MSNBC. Speaking of Hayes, his rebuff of CPAC’s invitation — lodged as a protest against GOProud’s exclusion — has probably had a greater downside for CPAC than its past inclusion of GOProud ever did.

Rather than stay away from CPAC, conservatives who recognize the self-destructive aspects of the movement should discuss their concerns openly and candidly. The most valuable conservatives are the ones willing to convey hard truths.

CPAC will be meeting at a time of great peril to the nation and the conservative movement. The federal government is strangling private enterprise. Obamacare is about to disrupt our health-care system and much of the economy. The Iranian nuclear threat looms while we hollow out the military. Our economic growth is puny, and too many people are unemployed.

But conservative candidates have shown themselves unable to persuade their fellow citizens and help the country and the Republican Party chart a successful course. If the GOP can’t win elections and win adherents, it is headed for the ash heap of history.

The right is not divided into moderates and conservatives, as a smart pollster told me, but between those who can count and those who cannot. If conservatives do not attract larger numbers in the fastest-growing parts of the electorate, they will not win elections, their agenda will become a dusty artifact on the shelf and the country will slide further into decline.

Those who say that the right needs only to be more articulate and more forceful in defense of the exact same agenda are kidding themselves. Those who say they can’t find common ground with gay conservatives who believe in capitalism, Second Amendment rights, and federalism are harming the movement, the party, and the country. Those who refuse to recognize that we will not deport 11 million immigrants who came here illegally are in Never Never Land and are defending a lawless system, not the “rule of law.”

Conservatives should not avoid discussing such matters. It is the left that marches in lock step and is only too willing to shed intellectual honesty in pursuit of power. The right can debate and disagree and thereby form a bigger and more relevant political movement that can address the problems of ordinary Americans.

It is also time to stop complaining about the left and the voters. Conservatives sound too whiny; victimhood is unappealing. They need to be forward-looking, optimistic and practical. It is not enough to be against Obamacare. They must be for market-based health-care reform. It is insufficient to be against excessive spending. They must be for entitlement and tax reform. It’s not enough to rail against the breakdown of the family. They must be for policies that encourage and sustain marriage and make child rearing easier and less costly. It’s not going to work just to inveigh against teachers unions; conservatives have to enact school reform including school choice.

It is time to get out of the 1980s and into the 21st century. This does not mean buying into Obamacare, cheering stultifying regulation or retreating from the world. It means they have to look at fellow Americans who didn’t vote for the GOP last time and consider what in the conservative pantheon of ideas is going to capture their imagination and address their needs. And they have to stop fighting battles that Americans don’t want them to fight and stop talking only to themselves. States are not going to un-legalize gay marriage.

CPAC should pass out some writings of Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk. They were practical and prudent, and they understood that we cannot remake our fellow citizens or reinvent their habits and inclinations. They understood that limited government is not an end unto itself but a guarantee of liberty. And they knew that by rejecting the utopianism of the left and remaining grounded in the world around us, Americans can expand freedom and create a prosperous, vibrant and decent society.

The leaders of CPAC and many in the conservative movement have lost track of that. They are creatures of the 1980s, when our problems, our country and the world were different. They became so adept at the politics of the 1980s that they never left that decade. Younger conservatives have to take the movement into their own hands, refurbish it, revitalize it, cast off what is not relevant and persuade others to join the movement. That is the only way conservatism survives.

Will anyone go there? We’ll have to see.