Could Bernie Sanders put Mitt Romney in the White House? I haven't gotten my 2012 and 2016 wires crossed; I have a theory that's slightly more realistic than a Donald Trump presidency seemed a year ago.
As it stands now, it seems almost inconceivable that Sanders could become the Democratic nominee -- unless the FBI indicts Hillary Clinton before the convention, or she reveals herself to be some sort of animatronic device sent from the future to bore us to death (which would make her ineligible under the "natural born" clause of the Constitution). The former seems about as plausible as the latter, given that Trump's nomination makes it even less likely the Feds will risk interfering with the election.
But by staying in the race, Sanders is clearly hurting Clinton. A raft of new polling has Trump either tied or beating Clinton. If Sanders got out and supported Clinton, many of the "Never Hillary" liberals would come home to the Democrats, just as many anti-Trump conservatives have made peace with the presumptive nominee. The polling suggests that a unified Democratic Party would give Clinton a daunting lead over Trump.
And yet Bernie just won't go. Why?
Part of the answer is personal: He's simply having the time of his life. This is a man who was kicked out of a hippie commune in 1971 for talking about politics too much when people were trying to work. The young socialist liked chatting about revolutionary labor more than actually laboring for the revolution.
After spending decades as a gadfly on the periphery of national politics, suddenly he's the belle of the ball. Millions of people are hanging on his every word rather than trying to escape the conversation. That has to be a heady thing for someone so in love with his own voice. It's like he spent all his life hanging around minor league baseball and, in his golden years, somehow become a sensation in the majors. Why quit? To preserve his viability to run when he's 78 or 84?
More important, he really believes in his "political revolution."
As a result, it looks like Sanders is creating a liberal tea party movement within the Democratic Party. He's endorsed the primary opponent of the hapless, pro-Clinton chair of the DNC, Debbie Wasserman Schultz. He's sharing some of his dragon's horde of campaign cash with handpicked progressive candidates. And he's encouraging his supporters to harden their animosity toward Clinton.
At this point, the smart thing to do from the purist-progressive perspective would probably be to continue fighting within the Democratic Party for ever more leverage over the Clinton campaign and in Congress, while the best thing for the party would be for him to fold up shop immediately.
What if Sanders does neither? What if he concludes that the party rigged the game against him and bolts to run as the independent he is? Would the Green Party -- which ran Ralph Nader to disastrous effect for Democrats in 2000 -- nominate him at their August convention?
One might assume that the obvious effect of a Sanders independent bid would be a Trump victory in November. Indeed, Trump, with his trademark subtlety, has encouraged Sanders to run as an independent for the obvious reason that doing so would doom Clinton's candidacy.
But in this season where the standard playbook is as outdated as the instruction manual for a Commodore 64 computer, Sanders' third-party bid could well encourage a fourth-party bid from an authentic conservative, such as Romney or Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse. And in a four-way race (or five-way, if you include the Libertarian Party), all bets are off. Theoretically, a winning share of the popular vote in a four-way race could be 26 percent. In a five-way race, 21 percent (which is where Romney is polling right now). States that haven't been competitive in decades would suddenly become battlegrounds. Of course, if no one gets a majority in the Electoral College, the decision goes to the House, for even more exciting postseason drama.
Trump just wants to win. Sanders wants to smash the status quo in both parties. The opportunity is staring him in the face.