As the surviving Republican quartet readies itself for tonight's debate (heaven help us), the latest buzz is that party regulars, rightly underwhelmed by their four prospective nominees, may be headed for a brokered convention.

Those were common back in the era of smoke-filled rooms, when party brokers knocked heads together and came up with a candidate pleasing to most factions. But the current buzz ignores the key question:

Who the heck are the Republican brokers?

And here's the answer:

There aren't any. Not anymore. The whole concept of a sane, pragmatic party "establishment" that can craft order out of chaos, that can crack the whip and command fealty from the grassroots - forget it. There once were such people - old money types with moderately conservative beliefs - but they haven't run the Republican show since the era of vinyl records. And if you're looking for a smoke-filled room these days, the closest approximation is out on the sidewalk. So, for better or worse, the GOP may be stuck with its current cast of lightweights.

The late Theodore H. White, political writer and author of The Making of The President series, referenced the traditional party brokers in his book on the 1964 election. They were mostly Wall Street bankers and corporate executives who worked behind the scenes. In 1940, White writes, they "imposed" one of their own, political novice Wendell Willkie, as the nominee. They "won the nomination" for New York Gov. Thomas Dewey in 1944 and 1948. They derailed a 1952 grassroots insurgency for conservative Robert Taft (the top vote-getter in the '52 primaries) and "installed" Dwight Eisenhower.

Fast forward 60 years, and the closest thing to a traditional establishment is a loose coalition of elected leaders and backstage players who couldn't bring order to a boy scout jamboree. The party isn't top down anymore. Nobody down at the grassroots takes orders from the leaders. Nobody can even spell Reince Priebus (he's the national chairman). Two years ago, when party leaders freaked out at the prospect of tea-party laughingstock Sharron Angle running against Sen. Harry Reid in Nevada, it made no difference to the conservative voters who made her the nominee. Ditto, the prospect of clueless Christine O'Donnell running for the Senate in Delaware; the right-wing base didn't listen to the leaders when they made her the nominee.

Elected leaders used to have a lot of sway when the chips were down. But who, down at the grassroots, is going to take direction from John Boehner? Or Mitch McConnell? Or the Bush family? Or any of the governors (Chris Christie, Haley Barbour, Mitch Daniels) who have already fled center stage in 2012? None of them can speak for the party, much less knock heads together.

Maybe Fox News chairman Roger Ailes is a pillar of a new kind of establishment. Or Sean Hannity. Or Rush Limbaugh. Or radio host Mark Levin. Or Karl Rove, assuming he has sufficiently distanced himself from the wreckage of the Bush administration he brought to power. But none of those people are brokers, in the traditional sense. They are agitators, not conciliators. If the GOP winds up this summer with a nominee who can't unite the party - or no nominee, mathematically speaking - those people are likely to gin up the frenzy, not staunch it by seeking a solution.

As conservative commentator and ex-Bush speechwriter David Frum remarked the other day, "The big change in American politics over the past two decades has been the decline of followership. Party members expect the party to serve them - one major reason that both parties have drifted to the ideological extremes since the 1970s."

Theodore White's focus on 1964 was noteworthy, because, in his view, that was the year when the traditional brokers began to lose their mojo. They rightly feared that the grassroots conservative candidacy of Barry Goldwater would put the party on a "collision course" with itself, culminating in a fractious summer convention. But they were powerless "to avert the disaster that lay ahead."

And today's party, lacking any brokers, may be powerless to avoid a similar fate.

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