The idea of “hitting bottom” is somewhat contested in addiction and recovery circles. The experience of beginning the road to recovery after finding oneself with “nowhere to go but up” resonates with the experience of some recovering addicts; but it’s been pointed out that every new low can potentially feel like “bottom,” until you sink lower still. Thus, one speaks of “hitting bottom” in retrospect, after a pivotal “moment of clarity”—a realization that one has been deluded, that one has a problem, that the way one has been living isn’t working, and that one doesn’t want to continue down the same path.

For the pro-life movement, for people who tend to vote Republican, and for people who align around the label “conservative,” the 2012 election might be considered a new low. Four years ago, as Ross Douthat points out in his astute commentary, it was possible to believe that  candidate Obama had been swept into office by a unique convergence of anti-Bush backlash and blindly utopian optimism projected onto a largely unknown figure who spoke in inspiring generalities, and that this convergence of factors couldn’t be duplicated. Four difficult, disappointing years later, Mr. Obama carries a long, well-known list of liabilities—and his opponents have had ample opportunity to capitalize on them. Yet President Obama has won reelection, solidifying the victory of candidate Obama.

True, it was a close thing—closer than 2008. The nation did shift to the right; Mr. Obama lost support in most states and among most groups, the most notable exception being Hispanics.

And of course opponents can console themselves with a long list of mitigating factors. Yes, the Republicans put up an uninspiring candidate who campaigned on the narrowest of platforms, didn’t effectively capitalize on his opponent’s weaknesses, and didn’t offer a galvanizing alternative. Yes, the Obama campaign shamelessly distorted Romney’s position(s) while a deeply activist press ran cover, simultaneously turning a blind eye to Obama’s own liabilities, including the mishandling and lying about Benghazi. Yes, a fortuitously timed hurricane may have helped to shift momentum from Mr. Romney back to Mr. Obama. Etc., etc.

As true as all of that may be, it’s equally true that conservative pundits knew all that when they went into election night confidently predicting a Romney landslide. Conor Friedersdorf runs down the lineup:

So many on the right had predicted a Mitt Romney victory, or even a blowout—Dick Morris, George Will, and Michael Barone all predicted the GOP would break 300 electoral votes … Peggy Noonan insisted that those predicting an Obama victory were ignoring the world around them. Even Karl Rove, supposed political genius, missed the bulls-eye. These voices drove the coverage on Fox News, talk radio, the Drudge Report, and conservative blogs.

You can’t blame media bias for election-night delusion on the right. Or rather, you can—but it was the bias of the conservative media, not the liberal media, that misled conservatives. The polls were right, and all the wishful thinking and spin of right-wing punditry about oversampling and polling bias and so forth couldnt change the underlying realities. Maybe a certain level of optimistic spin is built into the system—but thats precisely why it’s dangerous to spend too much time in the echo chamber of a single one-sided perspective.

This realization may be a moment of clarity—conservatives can decide to live in the real world and stop telling themselves that they have a winning program when they don’t—or it may simply be a new low, followed by retreating further into the conservative bubble and continuing to point fingers at all the usual suspects, above all the MSM, without taking responsibility for changing their own behavior.

In particular, for those of us who consider the holocaust of the unborn the preeminent social-justice / civil-rights issue of our time, the circumstances of Mr. Obama’s reelection is dramatic and depressing evidence of what must be recognized, on the eve of the 40th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, as the ongoing failure of the pro-life movement.

I don’t want to overstate this point. It does seem that public opinion on abortion, particularly among the youth, has been trending pro-life, and in particular that pro-life youth are more passionate and motivated about abortion than pro-choice youth. It also seems to be true that most Americans today believe that abortion should be more restricted than it is.

But let’s not kid ourselves about the extent to which our cause has so far failed to capture the American conscience. Consider: If you are a male Republican politician, and you utter a single stupid or ill-crafted sentence involving the words “rape” and “pregnancy,” that one sentence will cost you your campaign and possibly your career, while potentially having a harmful ripple effect on others in your party. Whether that’s right, wrong or the media’s fault isn’t the point. That’s the reality.

But if you are a Democratic president and run an aggressively pro-abortion campaign—unapologetically and even crassly putting abortion, contraception and sex in general front and center as never before, from Sandra Fluke’s convention appearance to the MoveOn ads with Hollywood actresses—well, this may not help you with women voters the way you think it will, but it won’t cost you the race either. Nor will presiding over scrapping the platform piety that abortion should be “rare” in favor of the call for universal availability of abortion to all women “regardless of ability to pay.” You can do all this, and Americans will, minimally, not abandon you in numbers sufficient to make you unelectable.

Allow every mitigating factor you wish. Yes, Romney came to the race with dodgy pro-life credentials, made the minimum possible obiesence to the pro-life cause, and continued to send signals that he wasn’t one of us. Yes, the Obama campaign painted a ridiculous caricature of Romney as an opponent of women out to abolish contraception and who knows what else.

None of that obviates the crashingly obvious point that Obama ran an aggressively pro-abortion campaign, and it didn’t cost him the race. This means we haven’t yet succeeded in claiming the moral high ground that is rightfully ours. Americans generally may not like abortion nearly as much as Obama clearly believes they do, but they also don’t generally regard it as the unspeakable horror that it is. That’s the reality demonstrated in this election.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Obama won reelection, in keeping with historical precedent, with a majority of the Catholic vote, especially among Hispanics. Despite the clear and vocal concerns of the American bishops about religious freedom and the HHS mandate, along with what was, by recent historical standards, an unusually assertive showing of bishops emphasizing the preeminence of the life issues and the unacceptability of supporting pro-abortion policies or politicians, American Catholics were not persuaded that a vote for Obama was in any way contrary to Catholic values.

The dissident Catholic political line championed by John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden got a high-profile dusting-off at the vice-presidential debate. Once again, a prominent Catholic politician told the nation that his Catholic faith impelled him to advocate the Democratic line on certain economic and social issues under the rubric of “social justice,” while consigning the Church’s defense of life to the sphere of the personal and private, not to be imposed on others.

Some bishops have made noises about this sort of thing, and one bishop made headlines by declaring that Biden shouldn’t receive communion in his diocese, but as yet there seems to be no episcopal consensus on the practical application—if any—of canon 915 for pro-abortion politicians. The upshot is that the dissident Catholic line remains a workable dodge, and Church teaching regarding the necessity of defending life, not only as a matter of personal conviction but as a matter of public policy, will continue to be ignored by politicians touting their Catholic identity as a taproot of their policies.

A moment of clarity can be the beginning of a change in direction. One recognizes that one was fooling oneself, that one has a problem, that what one has been doing isn’t working, that one doesn’t want to continue down the same path. If so, there is the hard work of changing course. The alternative is a low point that turns out not to be the bottom, and an ongoing spiral downward.