Last week we saw the best and the worst of the conservative movement.The dichotomy between the party of conservative reform and those preying on know-nothing instincts was perhaps never so vivid.

Let’s start with the positive. The three candidates who distinguished themselves last week were Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney.

Gingrich gave another stemwinder in Iowa on Friday and continues to move up in the polls because he’s talking about conservative ideas. Not unlike Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) after his campaign meltdown, Gngrich has picked himself up and decided just to talk to the voters. Sure, he’s an organization mess. And yes, some of what he spouts is harebrained. But at least he is aiming high, talking about conservative ideas and offering, among other things, a thoughtful critique of the congressional supercommittee. (He might claim some credit for the idea that Republicans should refuse to accept the Hobson’s choice between high taxes and massive defense cuts.)

Santorum was grinding it out it Iowa, making his visit to the last of 99 counties. He rolled out a fiery speech focused on social issues and impressed Republicans at the Reagan dinner in Iowa. Craig Robinson reported:

Rick Santorum has grown the most of any candidate in the Republican field. All of the time that he has spent going from county to county has done more than just provide him with a good press release and a talking point when campaigning in Iowa. Santorum is now a much better speaker. He seems relaxed and happy when speaking. It is obvious that he has made a strong connection to Iowa while traveling the state. . . . As is expected, Santorum stressed the importance of cultural issues, but he also promoted his plan to bring home American manufacturing jobs and closed by giving remarks regarding foreign policy.

Santorum gave the most complete speech [Friday] night. . . . I get the sense that there are a number of people who never envisioned themselves supporting Rick Santorum, but he’s winning them over because of the depth of knowledge he brings as a candidate and the work ethic he has shown by campaigning all across Iowa.

Meanwhile, Romney recognized that one way to impress conservatives and the country at large is to lay out the building blocks of a gutsy fiscal agenda. Stephen Hayes writes in the Weekly Standard:

[F]or the first time, he sounded like a Tea Party candidate, proposing serious spending cuts and — this is important — embracing structural entitlement reform with specific policy proposals.

He’s not Ron Paul, whose plan calls for the elimination of five Cabinet agencies, or even Jon Huntsman, who has offered a full, unqualified embrace of Paul Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” budget.

But neither of those men has any chance of being the Republican nominee. Mitt Romney has a strong chance — and with each passing day that eventuality seems more and more likely. What he says on these issues matters. Cheers for Romney.

In contrast to faith in the power of ideas and confidence in the intelligence of voters, we saw the unseemly display of much of the right commentariat reacting to the Herman Cain scandal. They readily played into the psychotic race conspiracy game. My inbox filled with links to blog posts, talk show sound bites and cable news rants about a “high-tech lynching,” as if there had never been actual complaints against Cain and monetary settlements that should give any voter pause. The Cain apologists pretended to be uninformed by Politico’s reporting. Really, what do we know? Gosh, Cain wins cause we haven’t gotten a full accounting of just how many advances over a several-month period led to the five-figure settlement. Usually sophisticated commentators acted as if the reported $80,000 in sexual harassment settlements was reflective of not much of anything. They cheered Cain as he lashed out at news reports, the substance of which he first denied and then largely acknowledged. They turned a blind eye to his story changes and the accusations that flew from the Cain camp. But this only followed a long period in which powers of critical analysis were suspended and Cain’s lack of knowledge on a wide range of issues was minimized or excused.

Certainly not all conservatives were practicing self-delusion. James Poulos was one of the few conservatives who leveled with voters, explaining Cain’s “grand theme is a total lack of seriousness.” Pejman Yousefzadeh was willing to say: “Getting back for a moment to the misstatements of the candidate himself, Cain has never proven himself to be a disciplined speaker during his run for the presidency. His tendency to make ridiculous statements, and then to claim that he was just joking, and his fondness for misstating facts when it comes to addressing policy are all of a piece with his varying explanations and responses to the charges against him. He has shown little to no ability to drive a message, and to show voters that he possesses a command of the issues.” (h/t John Tabin) But these sentiments were few and far between.

Part of the figurative temper tantrum breaking out in the right blogosphere, I suppose, can be chalked up to journalistic jealousy. Politico wrote too many stories! But of course any of them would have killed to have the story and fed the 24/7 news cycle.

A great deal of this has to do with some conservatives’ fixation on the mainstream media. It’s the exact same pattern we saw with Texas Gov. Rick Perry — lash out at the critics, defend a candidate who has repeatedly screwed up, and then belatedly conceded, yes, the critics were right. A segment of the right, including many but not all talk show hosts and cable news personalities, thrives on contrarianism and whipping up a sense of victimhood among easily aggrieved conservatives. (Sarah Palin turned this into an art form.) For them it’s entertainment to say the sky is red when the media say it’s blue. But for the GOP, knee-jerk opposition to critical news about conservatives is a terrible habit. In their frenzy to circle the wagon they suspend their powers of critical analysis and common sense.

The conservative movement thrives when it is intellectually serious, eschews whining and conspiracy theories, sticks to the issues and offers a forward-looking vision. This is the party of meritocracy, not of excuse-mongering. Or at least it should be.

The voters in early states are getting closer to a fateful decision. They deserve serious candidates, concrete ideas and responsible, conservative media. Last week they got two out of three.