Former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney answers questions during a question-and-answer period following his address to the student body and guests in Starkville, Miss., Jan. 28, 2015.
Photo by Rogelio V. Solis/AP

Just how severe is the GOP ‘panic’?

The rhetoric over the summer from Republican insiders was, if nothing else, consistent. It was just the “silly season,” when passive voters were fascinated by passing fads. The campaign developments offered entertainment, but they were hollow and meaningless.
Once summer turned to fall, we’d see the race begin in earnest. The debates would begin; the wheat would be separated from the chaff; and the “silly season” would be little more than an unfortunate memory.
But when August turned to September, the race appeared largely static. Then September turned to October, and little changed. And then October turned to November, and the GOP’s top two contenders – a New York developer and a retired right-wing neurosurgeon – maintained their leads over the rest of the Republican field.
The Washington Post published a fascinating piece overnight on the signs of “panic” within the Republican establishment.
Less than three months before the kickoff Iowa caucuses, there is growing anxiety bordering on panic among Republican elites about the dominance and durability of Donald Trump and Ben Carson and widespread bewilderment over how to defeat them. […]
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.
The article added, in all seriousness, that the desperation among “some” in the party establishment has led to renewed talk about drafting Mitt Romney. Friends of the 2012 nominee “have mapped out a strategy for a late entry to pick up delegates and vie for the nomination in a convention fight.”
For the record, I’m extremely skeptical of the idea of Romney riding into the race on a white horse in the 11th hour, saving Republicans from their own leading, unimpressive contenders.
But what does it tell us about the state of Republican politics right now that such talk even exists?
Some context is probably in order: we’ve seen reports like these before, in this cycle and others. By many respects, 2015-2016 is different, but the dynamic of hand-wringing insiders, overcome by anxiety while reviewing an unimpressive presidential field, isn’t new.
What’s more, there are 11 weeks until the Iowa caucuses. For all the speculation about a protracted nomination fight, I can imagine a scenario in which a senator wins Iowa, looks strong in New Hampshire, starts forcing rivals out, and wraps up the nomination fairly quickly.
That said, I also don’t blame Republican insiders for starting to “panic.” A four-person top tier has taken shape, and it includes a reality-show host, a reality-challenged doctor, a senator who’s been at war with his party for years, and an unqualified, unaccomplished, untested, unprepared empty-suit. Those who’ve been waiting for months for the party to come to its senses have reason to feel increasingly nervous every time the calendar flips a page.
Indeed, if you read nothing else for the rest of the day, I’d recommend keeping this quote in mind.
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?”
Watch this space.