From Jeb Bush to Haley Barbour, Jon Thune to (especially) Mitch Daniels, we’ve watched the party’s leading lights and most experienced national figures repeatedly pass the buck, all of them hoping that somebody else would step forward to supply a credible alternative to Mitt Romney. Individually, their choices were understandable; collectively, they have represented a significant institutional failure — even a generational failure, you might say, which left conservatives scrambling to promote the next generation (Christie, Paul Ryan) ahead of schedule.
I would never call what these otherwise intelligent men have done passing the buck, or a generational, collective failure. First of all, Christie, like all the others Ross mentions, had to have considered one very important likelihood when making their decisions: namely, the likelihood that Obama will be re-elected. When the Obama campaign engine is running at full steam (and really, he's just getting started now), all the very BIG facts will come out about his leadership, perfectly framed for consumption by Joe and Jane Indyvoter. Far right candidates and activists will be apoplectic when the "liberal media" champion all that Obama has done and give him ample air time. They will pull out every ugly racist, hateful thing they can say (which worked very well for them during the mid-terms, didn't they?) to paint Obama as un-American, un-Christian, and unelectable.
Secondly, why should these sensible men jump into a race for the GOP nomination when it is dominated by thinking they find abhorrent? Even Christie has called the Tea Party "crazies." In a way, it is Romney's turn, and in an election to unseat an incumbent, the men Douthat cites as worthy adversaries just, well, aren't. They might be in four years, when the Democratic Party really has no one in the wings waiting to assume the Obama mantle. But, for now, "intelligent" Republicans (had to put that in quotes, since I still haven't met one) are going to stay on the sideline.