WASHINGTON — At first glance, last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference looked like a hot mess. On closer inspection, it looked even worse.

Difficult though it might be, however, progressives should resist the urge to gloat. CPAC may have been a disaster, but the Republican Party is showing faint signs of brain activity and a fluttering pulse.

Oh, what the heck, let’s gloat just a little. The conservative movement’s annual group therapy session often takes place well outside the political mainstream, but this year it was in some parallel dimension, perhaps down a rabbit hole.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, defined the gathering: “If standing for liberty and standing for the Constitution makes you a wacko bird, then count me a proud wacko bird. And I think there are more than a few other wacko birds gathered here today.”

I’ll say. From all the screeching and squawking, you’d think the National Harbor convention complex on the banks of the Potomac River had been converted into a wacko bird rookery. Here was a preening Sarah Palin, cracking one-liners and making an unconvincing case for her continued relevance. There was a strutting Donald Trump, delivering a stream-of-semi-consciousness monologue to a half-empty room.

Newt Gingrich performed his party trick of seeming both visionary and hallucinatory in the same speech. “You’re going to hear a false attack that we don’t need new ideas,” he said. “Let me draw a distinction. We don’t need new principles. … We do need ideas.” All well and good — but he tried to illustrate his point with a candle he had brought onstage and a history lesson about the invention of the light bulb. In the end, not very illuminating.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., sounded like one of those benighted people Gingrich was talking about. “We don’t need a new idea,” he told the crowd. “There is an idea. The idea is called America, and it still works.”

To the extent that Rubio’s words meant anything at all, they belied the fact that he has been working mightily to infect the GOP with new ideas about immigration. His whole speech tried to have it both ways — change but don’t change, and God bless America. If Rubio wants to be president, I don’t think Mitt Romney is the model to emulate.

Speaking of whom, yes, Romney was there, making his post-election debut as a Republican elder statesman. Speaking to conservative true believers who once derided him as a “Massachusetts moderate,” he totally brought down the house. He was warm, funny, self-deprecating — all the things that as a candidate he was not. Perhaps most endearing was that he didn’t have much of anything to say, beyond encouragement to keep the faith. Many other speakers didn’t even mention him.

Jeb Bush made the sensible argument that the GOP cannot continue to write off the segment of the population that Romney famously called the “47 percent.”

Bush told the crowd, “Here’s reality: If you’re fortunate enough to count yourself among the privileged, the rest of the nation is drowning. In our country today, if you’re born poor, if your parents didn’t go to college, if you don’t know your father, if English isn’t spoken at home, then the odds are stacked against you.” The speech received polite but tepid applause.

At least Bush fared better than another prominent moderate — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, presently the most popular Republican in the country — who wasn’t even invited.

The presidential straw poll conducted at the end of the conference was won by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., king of the “wacko birds” — the disparaging reference is Sen. John McCain’s, not mine. Paul’s speech included what sounded like a direct retort to the veteran Arizona Republican: “The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered. I don’t think we need to name any names, do we?”

Yes, stale. Obviously, dripping with moss. But outside of the CPAC echo chamber, there are signs of life.

Thanks largely to Rubio and Bush — and to exit polls from the November election — there is a lively debate within the party about immigration reform. Thanks largely to Paul, there’s a debate about defense spending. Thanks to the switch by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, there’s a debate about same-sex marriage. Was any of this conceivable even six months ago?

All this ferment tells me that someday the GOP will claw its way to the right side of history. Progressives had better be ready with some new ideas of their own.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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