Every election cycle, suggestions that cabals of establishment figures hand-pick nominees for high office make the rounds, even as those same candidates spend most of their time struggling for donations and endorsements. Yesterday’s report from National Journal’s Tim Alberta on a “secretive” plan to anoint a presidential nominee flips the narrative in one unique way. Instead of a group of secretive Republican insiders, this effort comes from a group of secretive conservo-libertarian outsiders.

Progress!

The Council for National Policy, a shadowy organization of several hundred dues-paying members, typically meets three times a year in various locations around the country. But with the 2016 cycle accelerating, and many conservative leaders intent on rallying behind a single candidate, CNP’s leadership is taking extraordinary measures – scheduling two top-priority meetings outside of Washington, D.C., and inviting a large number of non-members to both.

The group will host a two-day summit on May 15 and 16 at the Ritz-Carlton in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia. The format will be simple: Candidates will have an hour on stage to address the room and answer questions, followed by 30 minutes of meet-and-greet with guests. Organizers say they’ve begun sending invitations to all of the major Republican candidates – “even Chris Christie,” one said – and several candidates have already committed to the event.

The candidates’ performances in May could have enormous implications. That’s because five months later, CNP will reconvene – in the same city, at the same hotel – but with a different agenda: To begin narrowing its list of candidates with the aim of collectively supporting just one.

So who are the members of this shadowy group? Not exactly the usual cigar-smoking suspects in conspiratorial cabals:

This sequence of events will be the manifestation of a year’s worth of private meetings around the country, as first detailed by National Journal last October, in which leaders from the faith and tea-party communities have agreed on the importance of rallying their followers behind a single conservative candidate who might stand a chance of defeating the “establishment” favorite in the GOP primary. …

CNP is known to represent all three legs of the conservative “stool” – social, fiscal and national security – but there has always been a special emphasis on the first. CNP is currently led by Tony Perkins, who also serves in a much more visible role as president of the Family Research Council in Washington.

It’s worth noting at this point (as does Tim Alberta) that the FRC itself is hardly shadowy, and hardly incapable of conducting this effort on its own. In fact, it hosts the Values Voters Summit every year in Washington DC, which does … pretty much what the CNP apparently proposes to do, in private. It routinely features presidential and Congressional aspirants to express their sincere admiration for FRC and its agenda. It’s quite a big deal, and gives candidates a much higher level of exposure to donors, both small and large.

One imagines that in order to gain entrée to CNP, an organization would have to be at least somewhat influential on its own. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be part of the group. Their individual endorsements would be powerful, in other words, especially since it would be more public. Why would any of them choose to forgo that influence to stay quiet and hide behind a private interest group instead? Where’s the upside in that? And even if they do decide to gather together to hash out their preferences, that would only make them another aggregate group that these candidates would have to address.

How powerful and predictive would this aggregation be? It’s difficult to say on the first point without knowing more about who’s in the group. On the second point, though, it’s worth noting that Alberta and Shane Goldmacher reported last October (!) that the Battle For The CNP was coming down to a two-man race between Ted Cruz and … Mike Huckabee.

Don’t forget that this narrowing will supposedly take place in September, when the CNP next meets. That is about the same time as the start of the debates. One might as well make a decision based on the Ames straw poll. Without seeing the candidates on stage against each other and getting a temperature of the electorate after it starts getting engaged on the election, any endorsement risks being out of date the moment it’s issued. This looks like just another forum, not too much different from the Koch Brothers’ last month, rather than a secret cabal to anoint the conservative champion.

I’m afraid that there is no shortcut to the nomination process, not as long as the candidates remain committed to pursuing it. And I’m also happy about that, too.