Cleveland Convention Conundrums
The Cavaliers ended a decades-long sports championship drought in Cleveland. The Indians sit atop the American League Central. People are speaking of an urban renaissance on the Lake Erie shores. And this week, the Republican National Convention is being held in Quicken Loans Arena. Cleveland is living large.
But in living large, Cleveland provides the stage for large questions that the GOP convention presents. The great mystery — the identity of the 2016 nominee — was settled months ago. But, increasingly, that seems to be less significant than a number of broader questions that look beyond this election. Here are some of them:
• How prominent will be the party establishment that Donald J. Trump pilloried so unmercifully at this convention, or is the Cleveland conclave a Trump rally?
Ordinarily a national political convention is controlled by the apparent nominee, but ordinarily the apparent nominee is a member of the party establishment. The Bob Dole Republicans, for example, were indistinguishable in 1996 from the Republican establishment, and so, too, were the George W. Bush Republicans in 2000 and the Mitt Romney Republicans in 2012. Even in years marked by strife in the party — in 1992, for example, when Patrick J. Buchanan spoke of a cultural war — it was clear who was running the convention, and the party.
Not so anymore. Many Republican grandees are sitting at home. Others have said they will vote for former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton rather than for Mr. Trump. Some of the party’s rising leaders asked Mr. Trump not to consider them for vice president; there is no 2016 analogue to Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, who in 1984 assured Democratic candidate Walter F. Mondale that if there were problems with Mr. Mondale’s favored choices for running mate he would be glad to step up.
• Does a party mean anything anymore?
American parties traditionally have been the conduits through which political change has been promoted. The founders may have deplored and feared them, which is why they were not mentioned in the Constitution, but they nonetheless are significant parts of the American political landscape.
The parties have nominated converts before, and the GOP has been particularly open to them; Abraham Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846 as a Whig before he ran for president in 1860 as a Republican, and Ronald Reagan had been a New Deal Democrat yet won the 1980 Republican presidential nomination.
But the Republicans in Cleveland this week are about to select a nominee who wasn’t only a Democrat but who also retains some Democratic notions and, pointedly, will depend on Democratic defections, particularly in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Iowa, if he is to win the general election in November. His greatest foe in the GOP primaries was Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who introduced himself in Washington as a foe of the Republican establishment, who criticized the GOP Senate leader and who ran a presidential campaign attacking the very institution that is running this week’s proceedings.
All this raises the question: Do modern political parties — especially the Republicans — have much of a purpose in presidential politics, or are they simply the means by which outsiders and outliers satisfy their ambitions or push forward their ideas? “The only way to get things in this country is to find them on the inside of the political party,” the women’s suffrage activist Carrie Chapman Catt said in 1920.
The old notion of an American political party — invented, it must be added, by the Republicans — was of a tent, preferably a big tent. Now the Republican Party seems more like a vehicle for promoting Mr. Trump’s candidacy. Is the modern party simply an Uber?
• Will the convention unite or divide the Republicans?
This is a hardy perennial, not confined to Mr. Trump and the 2016 convention. Indeed, this very question applies equally to the Democrats, where the supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont may have won some small concessions on the party platform but still believe that Ms. Clinton is too cozy with Wall Street, too tied to the past, too reluctant to embrace the social change the Sandersistas want and too open to international trade agreements like NAFTA, which she supported during her husband’s administration.
In Cleveland, however, the unity challenge is even greater than it will be in Philadelphia, where the Democrats gather next week. Many Republicans revile the party’s nominee. Some are ardently hoping for Mr. Trump’s defeat, so as to purge the party of the Trump infection and to return in 2020 with a restored party establishment. The result is that forging party unity — the principal goal of a national political convention, alongside choosing a nominee — may be elusive, and may not even be regarded as a positive result by many party members.
• Does this convention project competence or chaos, and what is the implication of that?
This is partially out of the hands of Mr. Trump and Republican convention organizers, as the 1968 riots at the Democratic National Convention proved. But Mr. Trump and the GOP will pay for, or benefit from, the answer to this question.
That’s because, in recent decades, the Republicans of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush emerged as contenders for, if not the claimants of, the title that once was the exclusive province of the Democratic Party: the natural party of governance.
The Democrats’ possession of that title was eroded substantially by the chaos of Chicago in 1968.
In Cleveland this week, every hit from a billy club, every canister of tear gas, every bullet would undermine the claim the Republicans have fought so fiercely to defend. The party that won power in 1968 on a law-and-order plank desperately requires law and order at its own convention nearly a half-century later. Indeed, last Monday, Mr. Trump, responding to police shootings and shootings of police officers, declared, “I am the law-and-order candidate.”
Law and order — but not so much that the party is vulnerable to the Ribicoff critique.
The Ribicoff critique? The reference is to Sen. Abraham Ribicoff, Democrat of Connecticut, remembered for his speech nominating Sen. George S. McGovern for president in 1968, four years before the South Dakota Democrat actually would win that nomination. “With George McGovern as president of the United States,” Mr. Ribicoff said, to the disgust of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, “we wouldn’t have to have Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago.”