Has the Republican Establishment Given Up on Romney?

Via Mike Allen’s Playbook, here’s Joe Scarbourough on yesterday’s Morning Joe with a few candid thoughts on what Republican leaders actually believe about Mitt Romney’s candidacy:

“Nobody thinks Romney’s going to win. Let’s just be honest. Can we just say this for everybody at home? Let me just say this for everybody at home. The Republican establishment – I’ve yet to meet a single person in the Republican establishment that thinks Mitt Romney is going to win the general election this year. They won’t say it on TV because they’ve got to go on TV and they don’t want people writing them nasty emails.”

I don’t have any particular insight into whether this is true or not, and I imagine that most members of the Republican establishment—insofar that it exists—would deny anything but the utmost confidence in Romney’s ability to win.

But, if we assume for a moment that Scarbourough is right, and Republican leaders are skeptical that Romney will beat Obama, then this has important implications for the direction of the former governor’s campaign. Remember, in the modern era, it’s rare for a losing Republican vice presidential nominee to become the nominee in a later election. Dan Quayle, for example, is a punchline, not a presidential candidate, and the same goes for the most recent member of the club, Sarah Palin.

Which is to say that, in a world where Republicans don’t see a future for Romney, we should expect the vice presidential “race” to become a microcosm of the nomination contest, ambitious Republicans keep themselves out of the running, and leave the field to second and third string politicians who have nothing to lose from a defeat in November. Marco Rubio might want to avoid a losing campaign, but will that matter for Ohio Senator Rob Portman, who doesn’t seem to have another avenue into political prominence?

I’m not sure if it’s a good idea to pick Paul Ryan for the vice presidential nomination—it ties Romney to the right wing in a way that will hurt him with independents—this logic doesn’t rule out a nod for the House budget chairman. Unlike a first-term senator like Rubio or a term-limited governor like Virginia’s Bob McDonnell, Ryan has an established base to fall back on if Republicans lose the election, but keep the House. He will remain on the vanguard of right-wing thought, and may even increase his stature as a result of running in a national election. There’s a chance that losing might tarnish Ryan’s ideas, but I have my doubts about the Republican Party’s willingness to back away from ideological extremism.

Of course, Romney has a whole host of other problems besides veep selection if the GOP establishment doesn’t think that he can win. Everything becomes more difficult when you don’t have the confidence of party leaders, and if this will be as close an election as is widely believed, then a slight disadvantage in fundraising or turnout could turn that skepticism into a self-fulfilling prophecy.