The general feeling here in Cleveland a day before the formal opening of the 2016 Republican National Convention is that any drama is most likely to occur outside the arena, in some configuration of a three-cornered battle involving pro- and anti-Trump protesters and the Cleveland police. Big competing (and possibly colliding) rallies are planned for Monday afternoon, soon after the convention is gaveled to “order” — so to speak.
It’s the general disorder in the planning of this convention that sustains some speculation about the possibility of the unexpected occurring inside the arena. There is still no formal convention schedule available; that could be because the Trump campaign and its RNC allies want to withhold as much information as possible from the much-disdained media — or because the schedule is in crazy turmoil as chores usually performed weeks in advance are falling to the very last minute.
But in terms of efforts to loosen the grip of Trump and the RNC over the convention’s rules and platform, it’s probably all over but the shouting, and the shouting will likely be confined to the unacknowledged cry of scattered delegates protesting the convention majority’s decisions one last time.
Last week, a much-discussed initiative to change the convention’s rules to “unbind” delegates pledged to Trump via primary and caucus results not only failed to carry the Rules Committee, but also failed to secure the 28 committee votes (one-fourth of its membership) needed to force a convention-floor vote on a “minority report.” A separate effort to substitute a 1200-word “statement of principles” for the long and very socially conservative party platform failed in the Platform Committee. But the committee reports will not be final until Monday morning, which means petitions with 28 votes from the relevant committee could still, in theory, generate minority reports even now.
On the Rules Committee front, a comeback is possible because the anti-Trump “unbinding” faction could join forces with hard-core conservatives who want rules changes for the next election cycle — especially incentives for states to “close” primaries and caucuses to participation by the Democrats and independents thought to have played a big role in Trump’s victory over Ted Cruz. But it’s not clear that together they have the 28 votes to kick up a fuss.
Dissenters on the Platform Committee at one point claimed 38 names on a minority-report petition to adopt the short “statement of principles.” But the conservative ideologues who first came up with this idea were horrified to discover they were being hornswoggled into a maneuver to get rid of the homophobic elements of the platform, and have thus been dropping off the petition.
The last-gasp tactic for the dissenters is to force a very visible and time-consuming roll-call vote on the rules and/or the platform, which requires demonstrated support from majorities in seven delegations. In the unlikely event that happens, it would simply slow down the convention and disrupt the intended show of unity.
Failing a roll-call vote, unhappy delegates can do no more than howl as loudly as possible during a Monday afternoon voice vote to adopt the rules and the platform. You can be sure convention chair Paul Ryan will have a lot of trouble hearing the dissenters, even if their decibel level is, by normal standards, ear-shattering.
Thus the many months of Republican angst generated by the unlikely presidential candidacy of Donald Trump will almost certainly expire tomorrow, or become sublimated into the one thing that truly does unite the GOP this year: hatred of the partisan opposition.
According to one persistent report, the first night of the convention will be devoted almost entirely to Benghazi, the pseudo-scandal that puzzles not only Democrats but also any Americans who have not been marinating in right-wing media over the last few years. Whether or not that actually happens, hating on Crooked Hillary, her rape-y husband, the crypto-Muslim Obama, and the whole crew of secular-socialist business-haters and baby-killers is going to reach epic levels in Cleveland. The buildup to this orgy of recrimination has been so relentless since 2012 that it is easy to forget “going negative” at conventions is generally considered to be a bad idea. Indeed, at one Democratic convention I attended — John Kerry’s coronation in Boston in 2004 — word came down on the eve of festivities that, in accordance with an emphatic focus-group finding that partisanship annoyed undecided voters, all explicit negative references to that other party were to be excised (you may recall that Barack Obama’s famous speech at that convention eschewed Red and Blue America; although, the one off-message exception to bipartisanship, Al Sharpton’s fiery peroration, was the biggest crowd-pleaser).
By most accounts, the least successful Republican convention in recent history was the 1992 event where Poppy Bush’s reelection campaign was swallowed up by several days of rage in Houston, featuring Pat Buchanan’s “culture war” speech. That speech, and its furious purveyor, are in many respects the spiritual antecedents of the Trump campaign. It will be interesting, and perhaps important, to see if it can work to unite otherwise divided Republicans in this day and age.