In the Republican presidential candidates debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, former House speaker Newt Gingrich lashed out at the moderators for fomenting disagreement among the candidates. He groused: “I for one, and I hope all of my friends up here, are going to repudiate every effort of the news media to get Republicans to fight each other to protect Barack Obama, who deserves to be defeated. And all of us are committed as a team, whoever the nominee is, we are all for defeating Barack Obama.” I suppose the word “debate” in Gingrich’s mind suggests they should debate the absent president and not one another.

Unfortunately, a great number of smart conservatives are buying into this notion. The editors of National Review, in an otherwise thoughtful discussion of the Social Security debate, wrote: “What either or both of them should say is that Social Security is a program on which millions of Americans rely, that people who are in retirement or near retirement will not be asked to make a sudden change in their plans, and that to secure the program’s future the benefits formula will have to be gradually adjusted. As it stands, the feud between [Texas Gov. Rick] Perry and [Mitt] Romney is accomplishing nothing for anyone outside the White House.” Well, that is nearly exactly what Romney did say in the debate and subsequently. And moreover, the debate is accomplishing an essential task: helping Republicans select the best nominee.

Disagreement, even (especially!) impassioned disagreement, is an essential part of the primary process. It tests the mettle of the candidates. It separates the dabblers from the focused leaders. It shows who can think on his feet and who is a prisoner of talking points. And it keeps voters engaged and excited about the race.

Ironically, on Friday it was Gingrich who carried on the Social Security discussion, declaring to a group of seniors, “Social Security is a fact.” I don’t think that Gingrich should chastise himself for pointing out that the Social Security nihilists are not going to get Americans to accept eradication of a program that has lasted and supported millions of Americans for decades.

The effort to hush and muzzle, I think, stems from two sources. First, Republicans have become overly fixated on the mainstream media and liberal pundits. (News flash: Most of the them don’t like conservatives. Get over it. Ronald Reagan got elected twice when there was no Fox News, Internet or talk radio.) If the antagonistic media spot an issue, conservatives conclude it is phony; if the hostile punditocracy spot a legitimate weakness in a Republican candidate, conservatives feel compelled to say it is really a strength. To my conservative colleagues and friends, I can only say that a broken clock is right twice a day. They should not let mainstream media get so into their heads that they suspend their own judgment.

But there is something else going on here as well. I think the more right-wing quarters of the GOP, who would be inclined to side with Perry as the more conservative and anti-Washington of the two front-runners, understand that he’s got some big weaknesses and limited experience in defending himself. They rush to coddle and protect him, hoping his candidacy won’t crumble. Then where would they be? Well, they might go find a stronger candidate for one thing. But this is foolish, for if Perry has serious liabilities for which he lacks an adequate defense, then he would be a problematic nominee. And if he is a tough potential nominee, voters should see that and take it into account as they make their selection.

Indeed, Perry needs Romney and vice versa. Without the other, neither would be pressed to improve, show he can beat a formidable opponent and keep the interest of the media and the party. Barack Obama’s long-fought victory over Hillary Clinton enlivened the Democratic base and made him a much better candidate.

Republicans should recognize a sports adage: The refs shouldn’t determine the game. Let the players play. Let the candidates fight it out.