This Little-Discussed Organizational Issue Could Create Total Chaos at the Republican Convention

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1888 Republican National Convention
Who's in charge here?Photo: Kean Collection/2012 Getty Images

In early June, several hundred paid professionals and a supporting army of volunteers will slowly begin to assemble near the banks of the Cuyahoga River in Ohio, with the quadrennial mission of planning and executing a Republican National Convention, scheduled for July 18 to 21, at Quicken Loans Arena, in Cleveland. The event is convened by the RNC, but the ostensible managers actually play a subordinate role. Over the past four decades, their job has been only to build an apparatus for the conclave — a solid but mindless machine — and then turn it over to the “putative nominee” along with a long list of decisions that must be made to bring the event to life and then to fruition.

In a normal election year, the RNC’s Committee on Arrangements gives the assumed general-election candidate and his staff a schedule of speakers with no names; the skeleton of a platform with few planks; some ideas for framing acceptance speeches with no actual speeches; and a process for total control of every word placed on a teleprompter, and for making sure nothing else gets said in the hall, but missing the vetters and enforcers who will crack the supplied whip.

But this time around — if, say, neither Donald Trump nor (less likely) Ted Cruz manages to rack up 1,237 delegates — there may be no one to whom the keys to this turnkey operation can be handed. If there is a contested convention with any doubt about the identity of the nominee, a planning process that depends entirely on the arrival of a candidate-captain at least a couple of weeks before the first gavel drops will instead be rudderless. That in turn could immensely complicate the process of naming a nominee, and at the same time turn the convention from the highly choreographed infomercial we’ve seen in both parties for decades into a disorganized mess that undermines the show of unity these events are intended to produce.

News-media interest in a contested convention so far has focused almost entirely on byzantine scenarios for the presidential balloting and what they might produce. But a better and more immediate question is whether chaos will break out long before the balloting begins, in the full view of cameras and with no one in particular in charge.

As I’ve confirmed by conversations with veterans of conventions in both parties (and from my own experience as a script and speech staffer at six Democratic conventions), the modern national party conclave is designed to be celebratory, not deliberative. Many internal convention decisions normally made by the putative nominee’s operatives will have to be made some other way, and the number of conflicts could massively proliferate if the nomination contest spills over into every corner of the event, making every routine decision part of the struggle for power. Is the chairman of the host committee who typically greets delegates after the opening gavel a Trump person or a Cruz person? Maybe the convention needs two greeters! Is there boilerplate language in the draft platform carried over from the last five conventions that could serve as a point of departure for undermining a candidate’s support (e.g., vague support for trade agreements condemned as job losers by Trump or for infrastructure investments condemned by Cruz as wasteful)? They won’t be boilerplate anymore; they could become the meat and potatoes of minority reports and platform fights. Normally noncontroversial proceedings such as credentials and rules could and probably will become exceptionally controversial, making “neutral” decision-making by the event’s nomenklatura impossible.

The potential for and fallout from a fight over convention rules — normally something handled long before the convention itself, out of the public eye — was actually illustrated by the 2012 GOP convention. Putative nominee Mitt Romney’s people grew so annoyed by the possibility of trouble on the floor from Ron Paul delegates (many named in post-primary-delegate-selection events that diverged dramatically from actual voters’ preferences) that the rules were rewritten to make Paul officially a noncandidate. Traditionally at Republican conventions candidates just needed some supporters in five delegations to have their names placed in nomination and roll call votes recorded for them. In 2012, a new rule (Rule 40) was adopted raising the delegation threshold to a majority of eight delegations. If not amended or repealed prior to or at the Cleveland convention (by a Rules Committee composed of two delegates for each state, and then confirmed by the full convention), Rule 40 could, ironically (given its Establishment provenance), wind up ruling out or at least limiting any competition for Donald Trump.

If there are any unresolved state-level disputes over properly credentialed delegates at the end of the primary process, those, too, could be revived at the convention if a candidate has something to gain or lose from a particular delegate being ruled in or out. In recent years the convention’s Credentials Committee has done its work discreetly, but, again, if seating decisions have any impact whatsoever on the arithmetic of the nomination contest, they will suddenly be a big and controversial deal.

In this leaderless situation, there are really only two basic approaches the convention management can take. It can treat the absence of a putative nominee as a vacuum to be filled and plunge ahead with good-faith decisions made in loco parentis, subject to reversal by the full convention. If, as seems likely, the two viable presidential candidates in Cleveland are Trump and Cruz, decisions that may affect their interests (on, say, credentials or rules challenges, or even on which friends or enemies get prime speaking roles) coming from convention CEO Jeff Larson — Reince Priebus’s appointee — or from convention chairman Paul Ryan will draw immediate and intensely hostile attention. Remember that Trump and Cruz are living repudiations of everything the RNC called for in its famous post-2012 “autopsy” report. Many of the operational people they will confront during those potentially tense weeks in June when decisions about the convention simply have to be made are presumptive enemies and saboteurs. It will not make for a cooperative atmosphere.

Besides, there’s only so much party or convention officials can do to offset the absence of a putative nominee. The overriding purpose of the modern party convention is to tout the nominee’s sterling personal qualities, inspiring “story,” accomplished record, and courageous agenda. Not knowing the identity of the hero to be lionized leaves little to be done other than to attack the opposition, perhaps too often and too loudly for the party’s good. The 1992 Republican convention, which featured Patrick Buchanan’s prescient but controversial “culture war” speech, showed the risks of too negative a convention message.

The alternative and politically safer approach for a convention without a putative nominee is to allow representatives of all viable candidates for the nomination to participate in decisions. So if Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are the only active and feasible candidates going into Cleveland, the convention managers could simply duplicate the usual approach and have two sets of eyes on absolutely everything they do. Aside from making decisions harder rather than easier, this approach could politicize virtually everything the convention does, however minor, generating fight after fight.

This is the messy scenario that a contested convention is likely to create in the run-up to the event and over the first two to three days before the first (and possibly subsequent) presidential ballots are cast. If the chaos is allowed to proliferate or if inversely it is quelled with too much force, the legitimacy of the nomination itself could be called into question. And even if that doesn’t happen, very little time will be available after the nominee is known to get the party and the convention prepared for the rousing unity gestures of the crucial final night. One can easily imagine frantically suppressed protests, rows of empty seats, security and message-discipline lapses (like the Clint Eastwood fiasco of 2012), and just a bad scene all around.

The people already engaged in planning Cleveland surely know these growing risks, even if they are not eager to talk about it publicly, and even though the pundits haven’t focused on all the small and boring “process questions” that together add up to a potential calamity for Republicans. Maybe they can devise some radical changes in convention procedures to reduce the risk, such as front-loading the presidential balloting as much as possible to increase the percentage of the convention that’s “bossed” as it should be. Perhaps someone like Paul Ryan has the prestige to knock heads in those crucial days of late June and early July and force the remaining candidates to agree on as many things as possible out of sight of the cameras.

But all in all, and whatever their private candidate preferences, the people charged with executing this convention should probably hope Trump puts away the contest on June 7 decisively enough to remove the temptation of deliberation from Cleveland. For all the contrived gravity of motions made and seconded and votes recorded, American political conventions these days work best when they are Potemkin Villages built rapidly on the Prince’s orders to fool the casual observer.