If this Romney 2016 thing happens, I'm going to be blamed, aren't I?

It occurred to me last night, as random strangers were tweeting this story at me, that I’ll be expected to commit ritual seppuku if Romney somehow ends up jumping into this clusterfark. Even though I have no influence over anyone, I took the joke too far. I planted the seed. And I watered it with the tears of thousands of bored readers who sat through post after post about it.

All I want is a trial. I admit guilt. I just want to contest the sentence.

The party establishment is paralyzed. Big money is still on the sidelines. No consensus alternative to the outsiders has emerged from the pack of governors and senators running, and there is disagreement about how to prosecute the case against them. Recent focus groups of Trump supporters in Iowa and New Hampshire commissioned by rival campaigns revealed no silver bullet…

According to other Republicans, some in the party establishment are so desperate to change the dynamic that they are talking anew about drafting Romney — despite his insistence that he will not run again. Friends have mapped out a strategy for a late entry to pick up delegates and vie for the nomination in a convention fight, according to the Republicans who were briefed on the talks, though Romney has shown no indication of reviving his interest…

The apprehension among some party elites goes beyond electability, according to one Republican strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about the worries.

“We’re potentially careening down this road of nominating somebody who frankly isn’t fit to be president in terms of the basic ability and temperament to do the job,” this strategist said. “It’s not just that it could be somebody Hillary could destroy electorally, but what if Hillary hits a banana peel and this person becomes president?

If you’re a grassroots conservative who suspects that establishment Republicans would rather see Hillary win than an outsider from their own party whom they might not be able to control, that last line should show you that … yep, you’re right to believe that.

Let’s not spend any more time on the Romney scenario, if only for the sake of my eventual plea bargain. It’s not going to happen, the people who sincerely want it to happen are exhausted creatively, and it would inevitably backfire by helping Trump. Rubio and Jeb, nervous of being leapfrogged by Romney in the polls due to his name recognition, would be forced to scramble into attacking him, meaning that the favorite sons of the center-right would be fighting among themselves while Trump sat on the sidelines and laughed. The only interesting bit about Romney being floated this late is that it suggests some establishmentarians have not only given up on Jeb but are worried about their savior, Marco Rubio. I’m mighty curious to know why, but WaPo oddly doesn’t pursue that thread.

Instead, let me ask you a question inspired by WaPo’s broader point, that no one in the party leadership or the donor class seems to know what to do about Trump or Carson. Would it make sense at this point for them to … quietly back Carson in Iowa? Kick in a little cash, maybe, or lend him some GOTV resources? At first blush that seems nuts. Rubio’s their guy so why not go all-in on him? He’s in third place there, competitive with Ted Cruz, and he’s plenty socially conservative. Romney nearly won the caucuses in 2012 despite being RINO-y. If he can do it, why can’t Rubio? The counter to that is that it’s later than everyone thinks: The holidays are coming, when voter interest will drop, so Rubio doesn’t have a ton of time left to break through. Everyone likes his debate performances but he’s still 10 points behind Trump and Carson in most Iowa polls. And Romney 2012 never faced an opponent as formidable as Cruz 2016. Even if Trump and Carson falter, it’s Cruz’s overtly evangelical style that’s a better match for Iowa than Rubio’s is. Cruz is famously well organized in the state and almost certainly has some influential local endorsements in the pipeline. It’s not unthinkable that Rubio will finish fourth in the state. How much money do you want to spend on him there, knowing that New Hampshire is a better fit for his center-right image?

If Rubio’s too much of an underdog to gamble on in Iowa than the donor class has a big problem: Barring something crazy happening, either Donald Trump, Ben Carson, or Ted Cruz is going to win the state. The question for someone who wants Rubio or Bush or some other “insider” candidate to win the nomination is whom they’d most prefer among those three to take the caucuses. Is there an argument that they should prefer Trump? Hell no: Trump’s favorables are lower than either Carson’s or Cruz’s among the wider electorate, and as we saw just last night, he’s still got plenty of loose-cannon potential on the stump even after four months of campaigning. Meanwhile, Trump may have the best chance of the three at following a win in Iowa with a win in New Hampshire, where he’s led in every poll for weeks. The true establishment nightmare scenario is an “outsider” candidate winning both of the first two states, which may give him such overwhelming momentum that he becomes impossible to stop. Like the guy quoted in the WaPo excerpt told you, Trump winning the presidency is arguably a worse outcome to the GOP’s political class than Hillary Clinton winning it. They can’t risk a Trump win in Iowa. Either Carson or Cruz, both of whom would have a tougher haul in New Hampshire against Rubio, would be safer.

But who would be safer between the two of them? Carson can sound alarmingly vague on policy and arguably has the least relevant career experience of anyone running for the presidency. He’s a loose cannon in his own way too, not temperamentally a la Trump but in the sense that you never know when the campaign’s going to detour into talking about whether the pyramids were used for grain storage or not. Cruz, by contrast, knows his stuff and is a smooth, preternaturally eloquent professional politician. But of course the GOP’s political class hates Cruz; they’ll never forgive him for the 2013 shutdown and they’re endlessly irritated by him bashing them as the big problem with America. Cruz would also be harder to control in office than Carson. Carson would inevitably be surrounded by aides from the political class to help shape his policy positions; Cruz really might go his own way, especially having won by running on an “I don’t deal with the Washington cartel” message. And here’s the most important point: Cruz can actually win the nomination. No one on either side really doubts that anymore, having read the reports about his fundraising, heard about his organizational efforts, and watched him at the debates. Cruz can win. I’m not sure Carson can, even if he wins Iowa. At some point, I think, probably in New Hampshire, undecideds will applaud him for being a man of many achievements and impressive character but just not someone whom they trust more to wield executive power than a professional legislator like Rubio. Even if Carson springboarded from a win in Iowa to success in the southern primaries, I think some “insider” candidate would eventually defeat him.

Which means, if I’m right, that Carson’s the man the establishment should be supporting in Iowa. The answer to the riddle of who can defeat the outsiders in the race may be “one of the outsiders themselves.” If Carson wins Iowa, it’s a heavy blow to Cruz and it’s striking evidence that Trump isn’t invincible after all. It leaves New Hampshire wide open. Even if Trump goes on to win there, that still avoids Beltway Republicans’ nightmare scenario of having one of the outsiders win both of the first two states, meaning that there’d still be time for the center-right to unite behind Rubio or Bush in time for South Carolina. As a bonus, Carson winning Iowa would make him more competitive in the “SEC primary” on March 1st, where Cruz is expecting to clean up. Having those two plus Trump splintering the “outsider” vote among them is just what Rubio needs to win with the center-right coalescing behind him. Long story short, I think Carson’s success is mostly upside for the Republican establishment unless and until he somehow becomes a real threat to win the nomination — for instance, if he shocked everyone by winning Iowa and then winning New Hampshire a week later. The less likely you think that is, the more you should be cheering for him if your real goal is to see a more traditional candidate from the center-right nominated.

In lieu of an exit question, here’s a counterargument to all of this from Ross Douthat and Benjy Sarlin: Arguably, Carson and Trump splitting Iowa and New Hampshire is worse than either of them winning both states because it ensures that both of them will survive for many weeks afterward. The best thing that can happen to the establishment is for the outsiders to drop out as quickly as possible; if Trump, say, wins IA and NH, then Carson’s done and Cruz is in deep trouble. The race would quickly become a “Trump versus Anyone But Trump” contest, and center-righties have always been confident that they can win that battle (unless, maybe, the “Anyone But Trump” choice is Jeb Bush). If you believe that, that the party will eventually break against Trump or Carson (or Cruz?) even if they’ve piled up a bunch of early wins, then arguably you should want one of the outsiders to win both early states and build up some momentum because doing so will all but eliminate the other outsiders. Me, I’m just not sure anymore that Trump would necessarily lose a “Trump versus Not Trump” race even against a skilled candidate like Rubio. He probably would, but man, that’s some gamble. And it’s not necessarily awful for center-righties if more than one outsider forges on into March; it all depends on what sort of vote share they’re pulling. If Trump and Carson are both winning 30 percent in various states in March then the center-right is in trouble, as that’d leave just 40 percent total for someone like Rubio to consolidate. If Trump’s winning 25 percent in some states, though, while Carson’s winning 10 and then Carson’s winning 25 in some states while Trump’s winning 10, the splinter effect may actually end up helping Rubio. Ultimately, the outsiders mainly pull votes from each other. That could help Rubio/Jeb/Christie/whoever.

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