In Cleveland, a dazed GOP marches toward a Trump nomination

Jon Ward
·Senior Political Correspondent
Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, in 2013. (Photo: Damian Dovarganes/AP)
Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, in 2013. (Photo: Damian Dovarganes/AP)

CLEVELAND – It is hard to settle on a proper metaphor for the last several days of preparations for the Republican convention, which begins here Monday.

A forced march?

Invasion of the body snatchers?

A few thousand members of the Republican Party will gather over the next few days for an event ostensibly devoted to celebrating a man whom large numbers of them don’t like and didn’t support for most of the primary process.

Many of them are taking part in the Republican convention and helping to nominate Donald Trump only out of concern for their party or because they dislike presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton so intensely.

This process began to play out this week, as a rebellion against Trump was put down by the Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign in a meeting to settle on the rules for the convention.

One person who helped Trump crush the uprising admitted that he wasn’t even sure if he’d vote for Trump this fall. Many others in the pro-Trump faction of this week’s fight evinced no enthusiasm for the work, signaling with their body language or with facial expressions — a roll of the eyes here, a shaking of the head there — that they were not happy about their task.

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus rallied the 168 members of his national committee on Wednesday with exhortations to stop Clinton, with barely a mention of Trump.

“If we don’t stick together as a party and stop her, then the only alternative is to get comfortable with the phrase ‘President Hillary Clinton,’” Priebus said, as a low murmur of agreement rippled across the ballroom.

Those who talk to Priebus say that he has stopped commiserating with them in private about Trump and his transformation into a loyal, albeit zombified, field general is complete.

Even the man picked by Trump to be his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, reportedly told people privately earlier this year that Trump was “unacceptable.” Pence had supported Sen. Ted Cruz in the primary.

“It’s disorienting to have had commiserated w/someone re: Trump — about how he was unacceptable, & then to see that someone become Trump’s VP,” tweeted Dan Senor, who advised Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, is a friend and associate of Wall Street financier Paul Singer, and remains close to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc.

“It’s been a disorienting year in many, many ways,” responded Michael Steel, who advised former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign.

That word — disorienting — described what it was like for me to see Republicans here who four months ago were sending me emails saying, “I hope he has a bad day” in Super Tuesday voting, and were now making sure that the Rules Committee revolt went nowhere.

Another committee member who voted with the Trump forces nevertheless described an existential sense of drift, a loss of purpose that made it harder to get out of bed in the morning, since Trump began to dominate the primary.

An estimate by Trump’s own campaign found that only about 900 delegates out of the 2,472 who’ll gather starting Monday for the full convention are personally loyal to the New York businessman and reality TV personality. But most are bound by the results of their state primaries, so his majority is probably safe.

So why and how does this happen? There is a herd mentality to much of it. People do not want to be ostracized, or to lose their jobs in politics, or to anger grassroots activists who might be key to their own future campaigns.

And there are some who fear that Republicans running for offices other than president — for Congress or for state legislature seats — would be hurt if the GOP were thrown into chaos by a convention fight.

But largely, it’s because many Republicans fear the consequences — for their party and for themselves professionally and personally — of going against the will of the 14 million voters who supported Trump in the primary.

And that sounds reasonable enough, until you consider that when the contested phase of the primary essentially ended in early May, Trump had roughly 11 million votes compared to 17 million votes for other candidates who had run against him in all the other primary states.

Trump was not the first choice of the majority of Republican primary voters. That much is indisputable, but it is equally true that Trump won the primary fair and square, according to the rules.

But he has not yet won the nomination, and will not until his name is placed in nomination Wednesday night and then supported by at least 1,237 delegates on the convention floor.

And one of the more remarkable elements of this past week was the emergence of a U.S. Senator, Mike Lee of Utah, who stuck his neck out to make an argument for “unbinding” the delegates. He contended that when the leading candidate receives a plurality of support in a crowded field but not the majority of votes, the state of play is muddled enough that the delegates to the convention should have a say in deciding who the nominee ought to be.

“The fact that we have a convention in addition to a primary has to mean something,” Lee said. “If we really are to a point as a party where we just want to call the convention a formality, I think we ought to make a conscious, deliberate choice to make it that. But I think in doing that we lose something. We lose an opportunity to really unite the party.”

But the problem for Lee’s argument is that the “will of the people” is now seen as inviolate.

For decades, voters have been conditioned to think that the primary votes they cast will be decisive in choosing a nominee, although strictly speaking the party is within its rights to let the delegates make the choice. The possibility of a backlash is what has scared delegates, Rules Committee members, RNC operatives and others into going along with Trump’s nomination so far.

“That’s one of the reasons why I think this debate is important,” Lee told me this week, because he thinks there needs to be a conversation about the way that our political system is supposed to be a mixed system.

A mixed system combines both democratic votes and intermediary representatives like delegates who can settle disputes or serve as a safety valve if a confluence of events — like a splintered 17-candidate Republican field — leads to the emergence of a candidate like Trump.

Lee and others have vowed that there will be a backlash this week during the convention over the way that the RNC and Trump campaign shut down efforts to allow delegates to vote their conscience and to open up the RNC to more grassroots input.

“If you extinguish, try to shut out dissenting voices at the convention, you’re nullifying the convention,” Lee said.

And the RNC’s strong-arm tactics on the Rules Committee — which were fully within the rules and simply a part of hardball politics — have nonetheless enraged others who were not part of the effort to allow a conscience vote, such as former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

Lee and Cuccinelli met all afternoon on Friday with a group of fellow delegates to review the lessons of their defeat the night before in the Rules Committee and to talk about next steps, which might include forcing a vote on the floor on whether to hold closed primaries in the first four primary states, as well as an effort to throw out the rules passed by the Rules Committee.

They met again throughout the day Saturday, this time with representatives from Delegates Unbound, a group led by Wisconsin operative Eric O’Keefe and Dane Waters, founder of the Initiative & Referendum Institute.

Waters said their group will likely seek to throw out the rules package passed by the committee on Thursday night, which will require them to get signatures from the majority of at least seven state delegations.

Waters agreed with Lee that while their effort faced an almost impossible uphill climb, part of the reason to fight their rear-guard action was to force a discussion about why parties have a convention in the first place. In other words, even if delegates don’t get to weigh in at this convention, Waters thinks the public should expect them to in the future.

“I don’t see how we can educate and change the narrative in this generation without the political parties making that distinction,” Waters said.

And the prospect of a demonstration on the floor during the process of placing Trump’s name into nomination — and an attempt to force a roll call vote of the states rather than have the convention vote by acclamation — is something that Cuccinelli said he was considering.

“I’m thinking about it, and I wasn’t before,” he said.

RNC forces are confident that they can repel the insurgents on every front, just as they rightly were ahead of the Rules Committee vote on Thursday.

But a key player to watch in all this is Paul Ryan, who presides over the convention as its chairman, and will decide whether he holds the gavel during the nomination vote and — if he does — whether dissenting voices from the floor will be heard and counted.
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