Whatever you think of our president, you’d have to agree there’s a lot of “bully” in his use of the “bully pulpit.” He loves to win by intimidation, and his threats to use his power to crush anyone who displeases him in any way are as much of his stock-in-trade as the use of Twitter to deliver them. So his threat over the weekend to move the 2020 Republican National Convention out of Charlotte and the state of North Carolina was unsurprising, and potentially empty, if alarming, to those it might affect.
Trump said, in a series of four tweets:
I love the Great State of North Carolina, so much so that I insisted on having the Republican National Convention in Charlotte at the end of August. Unfortunately, Democrat Governor, @RoyCooperNC is still in Shutdown mood & unable to guarantee that by August we will be allowed full attendance in the Arena. In other words, we would be spending millions of dollars building the Arena to a very high standard without even knowing if the Democrat Governor would allow the Republican Party to fully occupy the space. Plans are being made by many thousands of enthusiastic Republicans, and others, to head to beautiful North Carolina in August. They must be immediately given an answer by the Governor as to whether or not the space will be allowed to be fully occupied. If not, we will be reluctantly forced to find, with all of the jobs and economic development it brings, another Republican National Convention site. This is not something I want to do. Thank you, and I LOVE the people of North Carolina!
Trump’s sidekick, Vice-President Mike Pence, chipped in with a more specific threat on Fox & Friends: to move the convention to more accommodating states like (Republican-governed) Florida, Georgia, or Texas.
Now anyone who has ever had much to do with putting on a national political convention knows that plans get made and contracts get signed long before the first gavel drops. And while the coronavirus pandemic has probably slowed down some legally binding negotiations with local government officials, hotels, caterers, and purveyors of other services, the pandemic has undoubtedly made starting them all over in a different locale extremely difficult. The last thing the Republican National Committee needs to do in making inherently complicated and contingent-on-circumstances plans is to spend half its resources fighting lawsuits from vendors in Charlotte while trying to stage a show somewhere else.
As for that “somewhere else,” Republicans in the states Pence mentioned may get all excited, but the economics of a national party convention are iffy from the host community’s point of view in the best of times, which is why not that many cities bid on them these days.
To add another complication, there’s really nowhere in the country that can promise Republicans right now that a full-on, full-venue convention with no social distancing (presumably what Trump means by “fully occupying the space”) in August will be possible. This is the last type of event anyone anywhere is expecting to come back. The White House’s own reopening guidelines make “large venues” a “Phase Three” (the last phase) consideration, and that’s only (a) “for States and Regions with no evidence of a rebound and that satisfy the gating criteria a third time,” and (b) “under limited physical distancing protocols.” None of the states Pence mentioned as alternatives are allowing big conventions right now — much less a packed arena with shouting and sweating MAGA folk demanding a presidency-for-life for Trump — and nobody knows what the coronavirus will do to us in the coming weeks.
For that matter, North Carolina isn’t exactly shut down; Roy Cooper’s general stay-at-home order has been allowed to expire, and retail stores, restaurants, and salons are reopening with some social-distancing requirements, much like other southeastern states (churches are reopening as well, but that was the result of a court order).
So what’s Trump doing? It would appear he’s just messing with Roy Cooper’s head; reinforcing his partisan claims that Democratic governors are dragging their heels in allowing businesses to reopen; increasing bargaining leverage with the state and the city of Charlotte (which has a Democratic mayor, Vi Lyles); and setting a foundation for blaming the locals for anything that goes awry. And the locals are pushing back rather than cowering, as the Charlotte Observer reports:
Prompted by President Donald Trump’s threat to pull the Republican National Convention from Charlotte unless “full attendance” was allowed, North Carolina Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen requested a written COVID-19 safety plan from the CEO of the Republican National Convention Monday.
In a letter obtained by The Charlotte Observer, Cohen wrote to CEO Marcia Kelly that “we look forward to continuing to work with you and your team to ensure a safe RNC,” and there must be “several scenarios planned that can be deployed depending on the public health situation.”
And that’s very likely in line with the RNC’s own internal planning, despite Trump’s bluster about needing a promise that he can pack an arena. Just last week the New York Times reported that Republicans are not at all assuming they can conduct a business-as-usual convention:
[B]ehind the scenes, Republicans are looking at possible contingency plans, including limiting the number of people who descend on Charlotte to only delegates, and making alternate delegates stay home, according to interviews with a half-dozen Republicans close to the planning.
Republicans in Atlanta or Dallas or Tampa really should cool their jets about the possibility of snaring the convention at the last minute. Even if we ignore the logistics, and the inestimable damage to the GOP that would ensue if its convention became a super-spreader event, Trump & Co. are probably not going to offend the voters of a battleground state by breaking their promise to hold whatever kind of convention they can actually have. The president just happens to enjoy this sort of nasty behavior the way normal people enjoy being pleasant and civil.