Peter Wehner devotes a featured Commentary blog entry to a question conservatives ought to consider: “What do you do when you’ve lost an argument, at least for now?” In this case, the lost argument involves taxing those with incomes of $250,000 or more.

I’m actually conflicted as to what strategy Republicans ought to adopt in their battle with the president over the fiscal cliff, since I believe there are real downsides to capitulating on raising taxes on the top income earners. But however this issue resolves itself, conservatives should be careful not to assume that the problems we face are merely (or mostly) rhetorical.

It may be that a majority of the public, having heard both sides of the argument, believes that upper-income people are under-taxed. If that’s the case, it would be a significant error for conservatives to assume we simply need to make the same arguments, only louder, with more passion, and with more charts and graphs. It may be that we have to reframe the issue. Or it may be that we have to accept that waging the fight on this ground is injurious to the larger conservative cause. This is a discussion conservatives need to have in a calm, empirical way, resisting the impulse (on all sides) to either purge or impugn motivations — and to bear in mind that if conservatives give in to Obama’s demands, it may be a mistake but it wouldn’t be a violation of a high principle. Deciding on whether the top tax rate should be 35 percent or 39.6 percent, or somewhere in between, is a prudential, not quasi-theological, argument.

A final, related point: Conservatives have to be alert to shifting circumstances. Today we face challenges – including wage stagnation, lack of social mobility, globalization, income inequality, fracturing families, and an entitlement crisis — that are in some respects quite different, or at least more acute, than the ones we faced in 1980, when the threats we faced included soaring interest rates, high inflation, and a top marginal rate of 70 percent. This doesn’t mean that the arguments about tax rates and the size of government are passé. But it does mean conservatism has to take into account a realistic assessment of the sentiments of the public – not in order to bow before them, but to be better able to shape them.