At CPAC yesterday Texas Gov. Rick Perry was good-natured about his disastrous presidential run, joking that he sought to replace President Obama but “the people of Iowa and New Hampshire had a different idea.” Later in his remarks he told the crowd, “You don’t have to settle.” That sort of rhetorical flourish is commonplace at events like CPAC, but it is entirely wrong. And it’s quite unhelpful for a party desperate to replace the incumbent president.

In every election we “settle” for the best of imperfect candidates. It’s only in this election that the fantasy has been dangled before Republicans’ eyes month after month of the prospect of a late entrant or a brokered convention. The implication of that is, “I don’t want to play politics in the real world.” I suppose fantasy politics, like fantasy football, is fun, but it is not productive. Moreover, it perpetuates a constant state of aggrievement, the conviction that we’ve been done wrong and deprived of our best candidates. But in fact, candidates who don’t run are not perfect; they aren’t even candidates.

So it’s well and good for a failed candidate or pundits to dream of elusive and unattainable standardbearers, but there actually is a real race with real candidates and, many conservatives firmly believe, a real urgency to getting rid of the incumbent president.

So rather than beguile Republicans with the notion that they don’t need to “settle,” perhaps it would be good to scrutinize, vet, encourage, cajole and hold those candidates accountable. But every deviation from conservative orthodoxy can’t be a disqualifier or the GOP will run out of candidates. And in the end, the party will have to choose among those who had the guts to run.

Likewise, once Republicans are in power, whether in the Congress or the White House, every compromise can’t be a “sell-out” or “treason.” Otherwise, Republican officials will cease to govern, and the voter will cease voting for 24/7 obstructionists.

It is tempting, I know, to stand above the fray, denigrate every candidate and castigate every deal. If given their druthers, many would prefer to dispense I-told-you-so’s when candidates lose or deals turn out to be imperfect. Then they can whip out the speech or the blog post and chastise the political players for not following their advice.

But there’s a Teddy Roosevelt quote that holds up and should be uppermost in the minds of opinion makers, candidates, staffers, activists and voters:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

In all likelihood, either Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum will be the GOP nominee. The Republican Party has had better nominees and worse ones. But these two are giving their all. They are serious people who have come up with serious policy ideas. Neither took the easy way out and pandered to the isolationist crowd. Both put more cards on the table than the president has ever done in formulating entitlement programs.

So rather than give way to despondency or perversely conjure up a fictional race, conservatives would be wise to weigh their choices, pick the strongest candidate and work like heck to elect him.

There’s no shame in working for a flawed candidate (or trying to help him improve). The only shame is in preserving your I-told-you-so’s by raising the bar so high that no candidate, at least none who wanted to run, could ever hurdle.