The American electorate has taken the Republican Party to the woodshed for a beating the past two election cycles. Suffice it to say I'm personally familiar with the inside of that woodshed.

Many factors have contributed to my party's going down to defeat time and again: an unpopular war, ethical scandals, and a budget deficit that grew for both good (9/11 response) and bad reasons (bridges to nowhere).

But the most important factor may be our failure to articulate who we are as a party. In short, what do Republicans stand for, and how do we communicate that today?

Let's look at this in the context of the Republican Party's current national leadership void.

Between 2001 and 2007, I served as chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, the organization charged with coordinating Republican senators' message to the American people. During this time, Republicans controlled the White House, the House and Senate, and a majority of the country's governorships. We didn't have just one bully pulpit; we had dozens.

This was both an opportunity and a challenge. And we failed.

I look back and marvel at the missed opportunities. A few of us were committed to developing a cooperative culture among our leadership and, ideally, a coordinated communications strategy. For the first time in memory, we held bicameral retreats. We talked about joint strategic planning. But the planning broke down in practice.

I haven't done an "after-action review" to assign blame, some of which would no doubt fall in my own lap. Egos, institutional interests, policy disagreements, indifference and incompetence - all contributed to our inability to shape a governing vision and communicate it to the American electorate. And Republicans made it worse by nominating a 2008 presidential candidate who has never been known for either his vision or his ability to communicate.

It is vital, therefore, that the Republican Party's next national chairman be not just a great manager of a large, complex organization, but a leader who can forge a consensus vision and help articulate it.

First, the new chairman must help the GOP leadership in Washington and the states produce a clear, compelling vision for America, rooted in our party's long-standing conservative beliefs.

I believe America is a center-right country. We should not back away from the policies that have built this great nation just because European progressivism is "in." America will not thrive if we continue to abandon capitalism; our leadership role in the world, backed by a strong military; and the values our forefathers bequeathed to us in our founding documents.

Second, the new chairman must plan and prepare to effectively articulate that message to the American people.

Our governing philosophy was not rejected in the last two elections; rather, we could not plausibly explain how our ideas and actions matched that philosophy. That problem continues today, as the government considers whether to borrow and print more money to bail out the Big Three auto manufacturers, which are even less worthy of a bailout than the financial sector.

Finally, the Republican Party must develop technology that will make the Obama team envious. While that seems unlikely, it's exactly what the Democrats did between the 2004 and 2008 elections.

The Republican National Committee and the Bush campaign once ran circles around the Democrats. We tried to build on what worked, but the Democrats grasped the scale of change in technology and vaulted past us.

And technology alone won't be enough. The new chairman has to winsomely communicate our vision and build a nationwide team to deliver our message.

We are up against a new Great Communicator. We cannot leave the field uncontested.

E-mail Rick Santorum at rsantorum@phillynews.com.