Over the long run, the most important impact of an election is not on the winning party, but on the loser. Winners feel confirmed in staying the course they're on. Losing parties - those intent on winning again someday - are moved to figure out what they did wrong and how they must change.

The conservative movement and the Republican Party it controls were stunned by President Obama's victory last month. The depth of their astonishment was itself a sign of how much they misunderstood the country they proposed to lead. Yet the shock has pushed many conservatives to think at least mildly heretical thoughts.

Some are realizing the tea-party surge of 2010 was akin to an amphetamine rush - it produced instant gratification, but left the conservative brand tarnished by extremism on both social and economic issues.

It's true that the early signs of conservative evolution are largely rhetorical. The right wing's supporters are already threatening primaries against House and Senate Republicans who even hint at raising taxes in any budget deal.

Nonetheless, rhetorical shifts often presage substantive changes. And Tuesday, three prominent Republicans took the plunge.

At a dinner in honor of the late Jack Kemp - a big tax-cutter who also had a big heart - Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Marco Rubio both worked hard to back the party away from the damage done by Mitt Romney's comments on the "47 percent," and the broader hostility shown toward government by a conservatism inflected by tea-party thinking.

Ryan spoke gracious words about Romney, the man who made him his running mate. But the implicit criticism was unmistakable. Kemp, Ryan said, "hated the idea that any part of America could be written off." Republicans, Ryan said, must "carry on and keep fighting for the American idea - the belief that everyone should have the opportunity to rise, to escape from poverty."

Rubio distanced himself from giving succor to the very wealthy. "Every country in the world has rich people," he said. "But only a few places have achieved a vibrant and stable middle class. And in the history of the world, none has been more vibrant and more stable than the great American middle class."

Rubio also walked a new and more careful line on government. "Government has a role to play," he said, "and we must make sure that it does its part." Then, he added: "But it's a supporting role, to help create the conditions that enable prosperity in our private economy."

Former President George W. Bush tried to push his party back toward moderation on immigration, using a speech in Texas to urge that the issue be approached with "a benevolent spirit" mindful of "the contribution of immigrants."

There's reason to remain skeptical on how far conservatives will go in challenging themselves. Actions matter more than words. If Republicans can't accept even a modest rise in tax rates on the best-off Americans, it's hard to take their proclamations of a new day seriously.

Still, elections are two-by-fours, and many conservatives seem to realize the need to understand what just hit them.

E.J. Dionne is a Washington Post columnist. E-mail him at ejdionne@washpost.com.