In the next couple of years the Republican Party will have to choose between two competing visions of American conservatism. My colleagues Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner have done the best job to date explaining what is at stake:

FILE - In this June 17, 2013, file photo, the U.S. Capitol, with the Senate at right and the House of Representatives at far left, is seen in Washington. Call it a steady diet of gridlock, with Green Eggs and Ham on the side. Congress did not pass White House-backed immigration or gun control legislation in 2013. Or raise the minimum wage. Or approve many other items on President Barack Obama’s agenda. But tea party-inspired House Republicans did propel the country into a 16-day partial government shutdown that cost the still-recovering economy $24 billion by one estimate. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File) (Associated Press/J. Scott Applewhite)

[Staunch conservatives] have therefore been fairly clear, and quite emphatic, about what they believe the government should not be doing. But if it is true, as they have argued, that the Democrats’ vision is a travesty of American government, then what is the proper and appropriate extent and purpose of that government?

Conservatives in recent years have not done enough to answer this question, and as a result have offered voters an oppositional view of government that, while perhaps stoking worry and resentment, is insufficient to build public trust in the prospect of a conservative government.

The challenge is both substantive and rhetorical. As the authors point out:

[A]t a minimum, ‘constitutional conservatives’ should recognize what both the federalist founders and Lincoln actually envisioned for the republic they created and preserved. They were, on the whole, rigorous, empirical, modern thinkers, as well as sober and skeptical heirs of the Enlightenment, who believed they were fortunate to inhabit an age of progress. Far from being constrained by the prevailing physical, political, or economic arrangements of America in 1787, the founders fully expected America to spread across a continent, undergo economic and social change, and emerge as a global actor. And they purposely designed a constitutional system that could accommodate such ambitions….The federalist founders created and interpreted a constitutional system that allowed for the emergence of modern America, one in which the federal government would be strong enough to shape global events and to guarantee a minimal provision for the poor, ill, and elderly. Such federal roles may require examination and reform, but they are not inherently illegitimate.

The anti-government right-wingers’ narrow view of government and unending genuflecting to the Founders, I would add, is so unpopular with (and irrelevant to) most voters that conservatives have resorted to declaring their preferences constitutionally required, thereby adopting a fiercely anti-democratic tone that ascribes failure to downscale government as the result of media bias and GOP “sell-outs.” In fact their vision is not constitutionally based at all, nor is it feasible economically and politically. (“Responsible, self-governing citizens do not grow wild like blackberries, which is why a conservative political philosophy cannot be reduced to untrammeled libertarianism. . . . [G]overnment has a necessary (if limited) role in reinforcing the social norms and expectations that make the work of these civil institutions both possible and easier.”)

What they urge is an affirmative conservative vision that recognizes the key question for our times is not whether we revert to a pre-progressive era federal government but rather what do we do with the modern federal government. It is not enough, for example, to repeal Obamacare and declare health care beyond the legitimate realm of federal officials. (“The proper conservative reaction is not to imagine a government stripped of public obligations when it comes to the health of citizens. It is to propose an alternative health-care plan that doesn’t centralize all power in Washington and that keeps costs down, solves the problem of insuring those with pre-existing conditions, and reduces the number of uninsured.”)

The problem is, the authors argue, a federal government that “antiquated, ineffective, and ill-equipped to handle the most basic functions appropriate for a great and modern country. America’s education system too often fails to adequately prepare workers for global competition. Our tax code, our physical infrastructure, and our immigration system are badly misaligned with obvious economic needs and desires. Our entitlement system threatens over time to consume the federal budget and undercut other indispensable purposes of government.” Ironically, Republicans have to save a vigorous and necessary federal government from the clutches of liberal statists whose overreach and profligacy render government unworkable and all politicians distrusted.

It is not surprising then that Republican governors are the most successful conservatives these days. They accept the reins of government rather than tie them up in knots, and they then guide their states in ways that promote freedom (e.g. school choice), prosperity and upward mobility (e.g., “Governor Scott Walker, for instance, has sought to transform the relationship between the state and its employees in order to better serve Wisconsin’s citizens. Governor John Kasich has spurred job creation through innovative investment incentives and balanced Ohio’s budget without raising taxes.”)

From our vantage point, the challenge is three-fold. First, conservatives must rebut the extreme agenda and rhetoric of anti-government right-wingers and libertarians. Second, they must reaffirm the need for competent, but limited, government. And finally, they need to offer up leaders and a concrete agenda that neither mimics the ills of the liberal welfare state nor relies on a fantastical vision of a weak, small federal government that is unresponsive to the needs of a complex and diverse modern society. The latter is where the misunderstood term “moderation” comes in. Conservatives cannot offer moderation as “Obamacare, but cheaper”; that is both impossible and unwise. Rather moderation calls for coming up with prudent solutions to problems that balance competing needs (e.g. for fiscal sobriety, for preservation of the free market) so as to offer a more workable and attractive answer to voters’ desire for improved health care. This, I’d suggest, is the true spirit of conservatism, one that evidences a preference for freedom over coercion, progress over revolution, the rule of law over ad hoc government dictates and equality of opportunity over both equality of results and social immobility.

You can’t beat something with nothing. But if they follow Mike and Peter’s advice, conservatives will have a superior political vision and the confidence of voters, both of which they will need to govern wisely.