The 2012 despair of the right’s intelligentsia

For months, the Republican elite has complained incessantly about the quality of the GOP presidential field. With about five months to go before the first nominating contests, the complaints seem to be getting louder.

It’s a tough time to be a conservative intellectual.

From the Weekly Standard to the Wall Street Journal, on the pages of policy periodicals and opinion sections, the egghead right’s longing for a presidential candidate of ideas — first Mitch Daniels, then Paul Ryan — has been endless, intense, and unrequited.

Profoundly dissatisfied with the current field, that dull ache may only grow more acute after Ryan’s decision Monday to take himself out of the running.

The problem, in shorthand: To many conservative elites, Rick Perry is a dope, Michele Bachmann is a joke, and Mitt Romney is a fraud.

For a change, it looks like I actually agree with the assessment of conservative elites.

To clarify, when we talk about the right’s intelligentsia, we’re talking about a fairly small group of folks: the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Bill Kristol and his friends, Charles Krauthammer, the D.C. conservative think tank crowd, etc. These are influential public figures, but they’re not necessarily the party’s mainstream (though the rank-and-file aren’t thrilled with the Republican field, either).

At a certain level, I can appreciate why the elite is frustrated. Their preferred candidates — Paul Ryan, Mitch Daniels, Jeb Bush, maybe Chris Christie — just aren’t interested and have shrugged off outreach efforts. But now would probably be a good time for the conservative intelligentsia probably to suck it up and realize they’re stuck with the joke, the dope, and the fraud.

For one thing, there’s no one else. There are handful of folks still weighing their options — Palin, Pataki, Giuliani — but none is going to be the breakthrough candidate the elite have been waiting for. For another, this should be a reminder to Kristol, Krauthammer, & Co. that the Republican Party’s bench is painfully weak when it comes to candidates who can speak in complete sentences and at least give the appearance of caring about public policy.

But it’s also worth emphasizing that these folks also need to realize that they’re not chiefly responsible for choosing their party’s nominee; the GOP’s radicalized base is. There’s ample evidence that base isn’t looking for substance; these voters care about red meat and emotional satisfaction. Indeed, the disconnect matters — Krauthammer told Politico the party shouldn’t nominate a candidate who believes creationism “is the equivalent of evolution,” but the overwhelming majority of Iowa Republican caucusgoers are convinced creationism is superior to science.

Given all of this, when the conservative elite look at the Republican field and ask, “Is this the best we can do?” it’s time they realize the answer is, “Apparently, yes.”