Both Seth Masket and Matt Yglesias were puzzled yesterday by the behavior of Republican politicians with regard to presidential politics. Yglesias was puzzled about why Paul Ryan and Haley Barbour would praise Herman Cain's 9-9-9 instead of getting on with the Romney/Perry choice, and Seth was puzzled because GOP pols are slow to endorse in this cycle (and for more about that, see a terrific Mark Blumenthal post complete with great data).
So what's going on?
I think this is yet again the shadow of Bob Bennett. You know, the solidly conservative Utah Senator defeated in a primary by Tea Partiers. Everyone is just terrified of being labeled a RINO; no one is confident that his or her conservative credentials are sufficient. So while they aren't going to rush out and endorse Cain, they're incredibly skittish about doing anything that will draw the wrath of primary electorates. Such as picking the wrong presidential horse. The incentives for endorsements are that they want a good candidate at the top of the ticket to help the party in the general election; they want to get in early because it never hurts to have a president who owes you; and there's a general sense that it's good for the party to resolve the nomination quickly. But my guess is that right now, neither of those things looms as large as they normally do, while fear of getting it wrong and offending intense conservatives is a big deal.
On top of that, on 9-9-9 there's normally a reluctance to take positions that might harm them in a general election (such as support of a goofy tax plan), but if you're Paul Ryan or if you've supported the Ryan-penned, House-passed budget...well, it's kind of too late to worry about that, no? The other piece of that is that they've all been training themselves for so long to ignore "elite" analysis of conservative policies that there really may be an incapacity to look objectively at some new idea (see too what Keven Drum and Dave Weigel said).
At the end of the day, they'll wind up getting on the Romney or Perry bandwagon. But no one wants to be the one to tell the crazies that they're crazy. It's a better bet to hope that the goofier of the Tea Party candidates burn themselves out than to be the one to go after them.