Editor's note: Will Cain, a CNN contributor who appears on "In the Arena" weekdays at 8 p.m. ET, is a media entrepreneur, small-business owner and host of "Off the Page" on National Review.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
(CNN) -- The other night, having a few beers with a conservative friend, I mentioned how hacked off I was that there hadn't been a wholesale denouncement of the likes of Donald Trump and Sarah Palin from conservative politicians and opinion-makers.
To be sure, many, many, many, many have denounced both -- but I think a chorus as simple and clear as a Cee-Lo Green song is deserved. It should be unanimous and unmistakable. (The past 48 hours should make it pretty easy to dump on Trump.) My buddy, though, responded with an (almost) perfect analogy. He said:
It's kind of like having a friend who's engaged to a total b!@$h. Everyone knows she's awful -- everyone except your friend. Do you:
a.) Tell him she's no good. In which case he will almost certainly kill the messenger. Pride will force him to dig in, he'll cuss, you'll cuss, you'll trade "you've changed" insults, and the friendship will be ruined. Or...
b.) Say nothing. In which case he'll maybe marry her, pay off her credit card debt, have a couple of kids, turn his drinking from fun to sad, and emerge seven years later divorced and a shell of his former self.
You're in a no-win situation. It seems that either way you lose the friend. So you just sit and wait and hope he comes to his senses before it's too late. Many conservatives find themselves trapped in that analogy, being afraid to tell their ideological soulmates what's wrong with Palin and Trump.
But my buddy's analogy is only almost perfect.
As an opinion maker, I'm not your friend. I'm not here to be popular. It doesn't matter if I get called an "elitist snob" (we elite snobs who gather at dive bars to play Moon and 42) or an "establishment Republican" (please tell CNN you think I'm that). It only matters that I'm right. And what's right is to say clearly that Trump and Palin are the exact wrong type of leaders to be humoring.
I completely understand why people are attracted to Palin. First: Whatever "it" is, she has "it." And second: She makes all the right people crazy. It's not hard to look around at Palin-haters, frothing at the mouth about "how stupid" she is, and think, "I'm sure as hell not with them. Whatever they are, I'm on the other team."
But when you're looking for leaders, some things just can't be overcome. Like, say, cheating on your cancer-stricken wife by impregnating your documentarian while on the campaign trail and then making a staffer take responsibility before stashing them both at a house in LA. Like that.
While not on the same level, I think being unable to name a newspaper you read, or wondering aloud "If God had not intended for us to eat animals, how come He made them out of meat?" are pretty big demerits.
Trump's appeal is harder to see, but I think I understand. Deep inside, we all want to blurt out every obnoxious, politically incorrect, unpopular truism we think lurks inside us. But we're afraid. At first blush it appears Trump -- like Charlie Sheen -- is doing just that. But when you look closer, you realize he's not. Trump says nothing at all, nothing of substance, anyway. You just think he is, because he insists he is, and uses the word "frankly" a lot.
In fact, the only argument he ever makes that isn't peppered with "probably" escape hatches, is protectionist nonsense. He constantly tells Americans that our problems aren't our fault; they're the fault of the Chinese, OPEC and someone he shamefully says is an illegitimate president.
Trump and Palin are populists. They will tell you whatever you want to hear. The problem is, not enough (because enough = almost all) conservative leaders are telling you what you don't want to hear. It's a race to be at the front of the lemming herd. But that first lemming isn't leading the herd; he's just the first to go off the cliff.
I'm often criticized for being impractical. I'm vulnerable to the charge that I can allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. And I often hear that politics is a game and that you must be in power to advance your ideals.
It all sounds to me like the motto of one of my favorite characters from The Wire, Omar: "All in the game yo." But even Omar, the seemingly amoral, nihilistic murderer, who walked the streets of Baltimore robbing drug dealers, knew there were limits to the game. That's what made Omar different from every other hood. He knew, "A man's got to have a code."
Here's a good code for conservative leaders to live by: when William F. Buckley launched National Review, he said the magazine's purpose was to stand "athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so." That code has never been more needed or noble than over the last three years. But we conservatives shouldn't only look at the left when remembering Buckley's words. Sometimes we should look at ourselves.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Will Cain.