We need to talk about Cleveland.
After Ted Cruz's double-digit victory in Wisconsin on Tuesday, Donald Trump's march toward a delegate majority seems to be very much peril. Yes, Trump still leads Cruz 739 to 502 in the race to 1,237 — but with only 17 contests remaining, and barely 800 delegates still up for grabs, it's quite possible Trump won't secure a majority before the GOP convention in Cleveland.
If that happens, horror and travesty await millions of rank-and-file Republican voters. And it has a lot more to do with the scheming Karl Rove wing of the party establishment than with Trump.
The GOP establishment has been very open in its talk about straight up dumping Trump during the Republican Party's convention in July. This could happen even if Trump comes into Cleveland with more than 1,237 delegates. Or it could happen if he comes in with fewer — perhaps a lot fewer. Imagine if Trump shows up with only 1,100 delegates, and on the first ballot, he loses. On the second ballot — when many delegates are released from their commitments — Cruz wins.
But there's another possibility, too — one that induces salivation among the GOP's old guard of powerbrokers. Cruz, by some unparalleled turning of the tables, has his second-ballot nomination taken away, and party mandarins manage to install John Kasich or Paul Ryan or Rick Perry as their nominee. If rules must be rewritten, so be it. If the will of the voters must be overlooked, so what. Just get one of "our guys" at the top of the ticket. The end justifies the means, right?
It sounds like an absolute outrage. Perhaps the end of the Republican Party as we know it.
Or maybe not. Here's my bet: Anyone who's handed the prize will, in the end, be accepted, by enough party members. A majority of Republicans already think it'd be wrong to deny Trump the nomination. But will they walk if he's denied the nomination? The most hardcore Trumpists certainly will. But the vast majority of Republicans won't. They'll swallow hard and vote for a GOP nominee who they vastly prefer to Hillary Clinton.
If I'm a Cruz voter, I get my guy in the VP slot and I deal. If I'm a Trump voter, I stay home or I unleash a tweet storm or I shout in the street with a sandwich board, but I don't start a third party (because third parties are for losers). The neither-Trump-nor-Cruz scenario offers the potential for great novelty and deep outrage. But barring some exogenous shock, it will not create a GOP nervous breakdown.
But make no mistake: If somebody not named Trump or Cruz somehow heads up the ticket, the most despised wing of the Republican Party — the Karl Rove wing — will suddenly have a new chance to wield real political power.
Just listen to Rove himself dream the dream. A "battle-tested" surprise nominee, he told Hugh Hewitt, with "strong conservative principles" and "the ability to articulate them" will overwhelm the "acrimony" that such an undemocratic nomination will unleash. With "those convictions that they can express in a compelling way," he observed, "we could come out of the convention in relatively strong position."
"A fresh face might be the thing that could give us a chance to turn this election and win in November against Hillary."
This is not crazy. In fact, it's all too plausible. The only thing Rove doesn't outright say is that he hopes to control this nominee behind the scenes, as he did George W. Bush. But that's all too plausible, too.
And in the ultimate burn for reform-minded, reactionary, and insurgent Republicans alike, the only reason Rove's dream is a nightmare for everyone else is that the Rovians hope that it happens. Even a disappointing-but-not-disastrous general-election performance is probably a price well worth paying for purging the GOP of the worst of the George W. Bush legacy. But a hard-fought defeat — or a win! — for a party-installed nominee would be awfully hard for Republicans to swallow if it means returning the reins of power to Rove and Co.
Regardless of how the convention goes down, the duty will fall to the nominee, whomever he or she may be, to make clear that the Era of Rove must not outlast the Era of Bush.