Tuesday’s elections were, as widely expected, a solid thrashing for the Republican Party. But the real loser was classical liberalism. And the winner was conservatism.

Republicans lost fewer House and Senate seats than was expected earlier in the year, dropping about the average amount lost in a President’s sixth year. They have lost control of the U.S. House of Representatives and very possibly the Senate, as we await likely recounts in races in Virginia and Montana—states that had trended Republican in recent years.

Very tellingly, Republicans lost three House seats in Indiana, where blue-collar voters, who normally provide a good harvest for Republicans, were concerned about the state’s necessary economic transformation into a modern knowledge economy. Part of that change involved moving to Daylight Saving Time, which Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels pushed for and which caused huge resentment among conservative voters. In addition, Libertarian candidates took away enough normally Republican votes to turn the tide to the Democrats in the three races where Democrats took Republican seats. These were most certainly votes against the War in Iraq.

The point is, in Indiana as elsewhere, conservatism trended toward the Democrats, as voters sought economic security and reacted strongly against the Republicans’ classical liberal vision of a free economy and assertive foreign policy. (Classical liberalism, for those not fully familiar with the term, is the philosophy behind Reaganism: limited government—with the superior competence in governing that it brings—economic freedom, strong defense of the national interest in international affairs, and local control over social issues.)

That, I think, is what happened around the nation: classical liberalism lost big.

But the movement lost because the Republicans failed to govern as classical liberals. Instead, in the economic sphere they ran up huge, unnecessary budget deficits attributable solely to massive spending increases. Small government went out the window as the Republicans massively increased federal control over elementary and secondary schools and passed numerous constraints on political freedom in the Homeland Security Act and the McCain-Feingold restrictions on political speech.

In the foreign policy sphere, Republicans failed to get it done in Iraq and stood idly by while Osama bin Laden laughed at us from his bunker in Pakistan or wherever he is now and Iran and North Korea worked to develop nuclear weapons. And in immigration policy, Republicans embarrassed themselves with an ineffectual, risibly symbolic bill to build a fence along the Mexican border.

In addition, the Republicans threw away their reputation for competence and the value of limited goverment with their inept response to the Katrina disaster. In this as in all other cases, the U.S. press were openly hostile toward the Republicans and sided with their critics, but the Republicans gave them plenty of ammunition.

The Democrats, for their part, ran as conservatives: against prolonging what they characterized successfully as a failed Iraq adventure, against economic giveaways to the rich (meaning tax cuts), against Bush administration failures to reign in outlaws such as bin Laden and Kim Jong-Il, against immigration reform, against, against, against. Very much to the Democrats’ benefit, abortion was pretty much off the table as the public waited to see what, if anything, the new Supreme Court will have to say about it. Finally, the Democrats managed to keep the party’s proponents of homosexual marriage fairly quiet.

The Democrats found some relatively conservative candidates such as anti-abortion centrist Bob Casey in Pennsylvania and former Reagan administration Secretary of the Navy James Webb, along with a goodly number of Persian Gulf and Iraq War veterans. They were as smart as the Republicans were stupid.

Despite the good economy, the Republicans were hamstrung by an unpopular war and record federal spending, a situation greatly resembling the travails of Presidents Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson. It was a recipe for high turnout among those dissatisfied with the war and concerned that the economy is about to go bad. The Republicans governed as Democrats, and the voters unsurprisingly decided to get themselves the real thing.

The problem for the right has been that conservatism is not a winner when there are huge problems for all to see—as there nearly always are. The Republicans have been strongest when they have adhered to classical liberal principles and articulated them boldly, as in the Reagan years and New Gingrich’s Republican revolution. They have been weakest when they have attempted to be conservative, as during the two Bush administrations.

When Republicans run as classical liberals but govern as conservatives, they lose.

After all, what Washington politicians are there to conserve (and indeed rebuild) are our high-taxing, high-spending welfare state; a political system in which incumbents have all the advantages; a flood of illegal immigration; increasing state-level socialism; a public education system that appears deliberately designed to keep people ignorant; the worst, most libertine aspects of the Sexual Revolution; a health-care system that is increasingly under government control; and an international situation in which Islam and the West remain just short of open war; and so on.

The right is well aware that the solution to nearly all of these problems is to unleash the creativity and intelligence of the American people, not to place ever-greater restraints on initiative and economic freedom. Yet they simply have not had the courage to defy the mainstream media and walk the walk.

If their failure in this election should cause the Republicans to remember those Reaganite values, it will serve as a salutary wake-up call. If it causes them to think that the voters want a truly conservative, even more controlling government, we’re in for a very rough time ahead.