Inside the Big Tent
Both the DNC and RNC featured divisive internal splits, over platform and rules changes, respectively. The Democrats settled their fight with a top-down diktat. The Republican dispute was resolved by a compromise, but one that still left some delegates unhappy.
At about 4:15 on Tuesday, August 28, the opening day of the Republican convention, loud booing broke out in the Tampa Bay Times Forum. Reince Priebus seemed surprised. He had just called for a vote on the recommendations of the Committee on Credentials. In the voice vote that followed, the "nos" seemed to have outshouted the "yeas." When Priebus ruled that the "yeas" prevailed, the cacophony intensified. Delegates rose and shouted, "point of order!" after Priebus ignored the first person to make the request. When other delegates began chanting "USA, USA," the dissenters increased their volume. The woman now at the podium, a committee chair from Puerto Rico, was drowned out. After trying a couple more times to read her statement, she stepped back, a bewildered look on her face. Priebus banged his gavel and pleaded with the delegates, but it took several minutes before order was restored.
What was going on?
The objections were to two rule changes submitted to the Credentials Committee. Briefly, Rule 12 would have permitted the RNC, the GOP's 168-member governing body (three representatives from every state and territory), to change the rules governing the party by a simple majority vote, without consulting the membership.
Rule 15 made two changes. 1) It required those states that held primaries to make the primaries binding on the delegates. These could be allocated proportionately or by winner-take-all, but no state with a primary could hold caucuses to select delegates. 2) Those delegates who were pledged to the party's nominee could be unseated at will by the nominee and replaced by someone else of his or her choosing.
Longtime conservative activist Morton Blackwell, head of the Leadership Institute, called the changes "the most awful I've ever seen" -- and he's been a delegate at each convention since 1964 and a member of the Rules Committee since 1972. They amounted to "a power grab by Washington, D.C. insiders and consultants" and were nothing but an "outrageous" ploy to hand delegate positions to big donors. Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum also objected strenuously. "This battle is not about preferring one candidate over another; it is about protecting each state's right to choose how it selects and governs its own delegates," Schlafly said. Other grassroots conservative organization were equally incensed.
Blackwell and Schlafly, needless to say, are not Ron Paul supporters.
Ultimately, the RNC backed down, and a compromise was reached. The changes to the party's rules would now have to be made by a super-majority of 75% of the RNC, and the nominee would no longer have the right to replace delegates at will. But if the state has a primary, the results are still binding; no caucus can ignore them.
The Paul delegates and some grassroots conservatives, including Blackwell, were unhappy with the compromise and still smarting about the coup attempt.
The delegates pledged to the Texas congressman had other reasons to feel aggrieved. The RNC had already interfered with the selection processes in several states. Delegates pledged to Paul were unceremoniously ousted. In Oregon, the state's executive body was pressured to cancel the state convention after regional conventions selected too many Ron Paul supporters. In Louisiana, a pro-Romney rump walked out of the convention and had its delegate selection ratified by the RNC. The most egregious example was Maine, where legitimately selected Paul delegates were unseated. Maine has a primary, which Romney won, but it is non-binding. When the state's caucuses selected too many Paul delegates, in the view of the RNC, these men and women were disbarred and replaced in some cases by individuals who had not even attended the caucuses. In other words, before they were even voted on, the controversial rules changes were applied retroactively. The governor of Maine, Paul LePage, was furious and refused to attend the convention.
The Paul organization claimed that their candidate would have had majorities in ten delegations had not the RNC intervened. This would have been double the number required to have Paul's name placed in nomination and to allow him to speak at the convention.
What did rank-and-file conservative delegates feel about the changes and their impact?
To find out the sentiments among ordinary delegates, it's useless to try to buttonhole them at the convention. If you have a floor pass, the honchos of the delegation will be happy to give you a few sound bites, especially if you're trailed by a cameraman. But the delegates sitting on the aisles are interested in listening to the speeches, or, if you snag them as they leave the hall, their priority is finding the men's or ladies' room or grabbing some $6 fries.
You have to go to their hotels. So on Wednesday afternoon I headed out to Saddlebrook, the famous tennis resort and home for the week to the Texas delegation. The Lone Star State is dyed deep red. So-called "social conservatives" are part of the establishment. Cathie Adams, president of the Texas Eagle Forum since 1993, was also chair of the Republican State Party from 2009 to 2010. But Texas is also the home of Ron Paul and includes a large and vocal contingent of his delegates. Also, Texans by reputation are warm, friendly, and open. And so they were; they spoke freely and candidly.
Virtually the entire delegation, I was told, had opposed the changes, but a majority was won over by compromises. Paul supporters were still very upset.
At issue, essentially, are two different concepts of democracy. The first derives from the Greek original. In 6th-century Athens, all citizens assembled in the agora, the marketplace, and debated issues of concern to the city-state. Attendance was mandatory. Women, slaves, and foreign businessmen were excluded. Policy was determined, and leaders were selected. Voting was either by a show of hands or by tossing a stone into one of two jars.
Democracy adopted by nation-states beginning in the 18th century was very different, of course. These were republics, not true democracies. Representatives were chosen who would debate and vote on legislation, trusted by constituents who lived days away.
Do you prefer direct or representative democracy?
Opponents of the caucus system say that it allows a small, well-organized group of zealots to take over a state's delegation. This was how Obama won the nomination.
Supporters of the caucus system say that a primary gives the advantage to the candidate with the most money, whose ads and mailers will influence voters who have not paid attention to the candidates or the issues. This was how Obama won the election. His voters may never have heard of the Fed, Fannie and Freddie, the FCC, the FDA -- or the Founding Fathers -- but they knew their man was a cool dude.
What you risk losing when you disempower local grassroots activists is the energy and enthusiasm they will bring to the general election campaign.
Texas is red to the marrow. The outcome of the voting in November is not in doubt. But will Texans get on chartered buses and planes and visit purple states like Ohio and Florida, and ring doorbells and talk to people in malls?
I didn't drive out to Saddlebrook just to see how Texans reacted to the proposed rule changes. I wanted to learn how "social conservatives" and "libertarian conservatives" define themselves and view each other.
There are two additional groups not represented in the Texas -- or any other-delegation: "neo-conservatives" and "paleo-conservatives." These factions have plenty of generals but few troops. They have think-tanks, magazines, and websites, but you never see a paleo-con table at a state convention with "Vote Paleo" bumper stickers or a neo-con booth selling t-shirts saying "Neo-con and Proud!"
The question of "influence" is always tricky, but the neo-cons did have the ear of George Bush at the beginning of his presidency. And they don't have a lot of reason to be proud. Undeterred by the discovery that the Iraqis didn't behave like liberated French, Dutch, and Belgians in 1945, some went on to embrace the "Arab Spring." Their influence has waned, but they are still the Great Satan to many paleos and libertarians, who believe that, like a latter-day Council of the Elders of Zion, they are pulling the strings from behind the curtain.
The guy with the tables, the bumper stickers, and t-shirts is Ron Paul. No one has as devoted a following. No one on the right is loved and hated as passionately as he.
The Paulists at Saddlebrook were bright and articulate, but many were undoubtedly true believers. When asked who might succeed Paul as leader of the movement, one guy looked at me aghast. "Has there been another Thomas Jefferson since Thomas Jefferson?" he asked. Another delegate also compared Paul to Jefferson, and someone else likened him to George Washington. One group was talking about a post-convention t-shirt that would announce simply "We Are Ron Paul."
They believe he's been misrepresented. He does not support legalizing marijuana and opposes abortion. He is not anti-Semitic or anti-black. Israel has the means to defend itself. Netanyahu just wants to be left alone to do this.
Above all, they believe that if voters knew him better, he'd trounce Obama. "The average person would like him because he's like the average person," I was told.
To get a more dispassionate perspective from the party's libertarian wing, I turned to Dave Nalle, the former chair of Gary Johnson's campaign in Texas and head of the Republican Liberty Caucus.
So how big a presence are libertarians in the party and in the electorate?
All the high-intensity interest groups represent only a small fraction of the party, but Nalle is convinced that most Republicans have quasi-libertarian beliefs, citing polls that show that well over 50% of registered party members are pro-choice, that about 50% support gay marriage, and that 60% support civil unions between gays. Of course, the support for abortion always depends on how the question is phrased.
As for actual vote totals, however, Ron Paul garnered about 2,096,000 votes in all of the primaries, a little under 11%. Johnson's total was negligible. Romney received about 52% of the vote.
But only 20% of the rank-and-file, Nalle believes, are "social conservatives."
Nalle reiterated the unhappiness of his wing over the tactics of the RNC. His own group endorses Romney and will vote for him, but he expects some defections to Johnson, now the Libertarian Party candidate. (Johnson's decision to jump ship took Nalle and other state chairs by surprise. He was always viewed as more pragmatic than Paul, and they hoped he would run for the U.S. Senate.)
But Nalle warns that few in his camp will work for Mitt, whom he doesn't expect to win. They will concentrate instead on congressional and Senate races. With solid majorities in both Houses, the party will be able to stymie Obama's extra-Constitutional initiatives. Nalle is very optimistic about the audit movement -- the EPA is next in line after the Fed and the Pentagon -- and the possibility of impeaching Sibelius, Holder, and others.
The Paulists are not so sanguine. Delegate Regina Imburgia was eloquent and indignant about NDAA, passed last December, that gives the DOD and DHS wide latitude in designating who is a "terrorist." Once labeled, you lose your constitutional rights. Take that, Tea Party subversives! Lots of Republicans, including Mitt Romney, supported the bill.
On two major issues that divide the libertarians from the rest of the Party, Nalle gives sophisticated responses, but they are not likely to convince many of those who disagree.
On illegal immigration, a fence, he claims, is too expensive, and e-verify threatens to become a national ID system readily exploited by a left-wing administration. Among other things, names of non-unionized workers could be passed along to unions to intimidate. A well-run guest-worker system is the solution. The market is, as always, the best regulator, and labor, like capital, should be permitted to flow across national frontiers. However, he finds the open borders position of many libertarians an embarrassment. National sovereignty dictates that the guest workers be monitored and not be given "amnesty."
On Islam, Nalle speaks with some authority. The son of foreign service officers, he was raised in Lebanon and Iran, spoke Arabic, and has spent time in Central Asia. He dismisses Islamic fundamentalism as a fringe movement. Though Wahhabis are "nuts," they're a minority, even with Saudi backing. The Quran has aggressive language, and Mohammed wanted to exterminate his opponents, but Muslims don't reference their Holy Book much, he believes, compared to the body of secondary literature, and they are largely peaceful. By intervening in the Middle East, we provide radicals with an easy adversary and make them look sexy.
The differences between the GOP libertarians and the Libertarian Party are largely tactical. Nalle feels it's much more effective to work within an established party. He didn't put it this way, but others did: there's an evil party and a stupid party, and it's easier to teach the stupid party than to transform the evil party.
It's hardly surprising, therefore, that social conservatives view Paulists and other libertarians with suspicion. They are interlopers bent on imposing an alien ideology on conservatives with long-held and deeply felt principles of their own. To themselves, social conservatives are the real Republicans. "Libertarians should be in a party of their own and not be invading ours," says delegate Kathy Haigler, a board member of Texas Alliance for Life and a former Republican committeewoman. "They don't belong in our party."
There is a thriving sex-drugs-and-rock-'n'-roll libertarianism, and I'd expected that social conservatives would mention this right off the bat. But for Haigler, it's Ron Paul's position on Israel that's the biggest turn-off. "I disagree strongly with his stance. He doesn't support Israel; he thinks Palestine should be recognized, more land given up, more compromises made." Others seconded this.
The tactics of the Paulists are also offensive. Even in the voice vote on the floor, she and others believe that Paul's alternates and guests contributed to the volume of "nays," against convention rules. There is a pattern of unethical behavior on the part of Ron's troops. When disbarred from voting at a recent convention according to rules in place, they stormed the doors and banged on the windows until the police were called.
They're immature, says Cathie Adams, the Eagle Forum president. "Lots of people came forward at the state convention, wives of men serving overseas, saying I'm the new generation, I'm young, I want to be a delegate. But they only wanted to go to Tampa to raise a ruckus for Ron Paul. The process is working," she said. "You don't go in, lob a bomb, and turn around and run away."
The soc-cons were also critical of the congressman's hypocrisy in loading up spending bills with pork for his district, then voting against the bills, knowing that they would pass. This way he can say he's never voted for a spending bill. In fact, he's number three in Congress in the amount of earmarks he's introduced.
But all the social conservatives I spoke with objected to the power-grab by the Romneyites. It was the near-unanimous opposition of the huge Texas delegation that forced Mitt to compromise on rules 12 and 15. And when the decision was put to a vote, many felt that the first individual shouting "point of order" ought to have been recognized. There could have been a show of hands on his point. And they felt Ron Paul's vote totals ought to have been announced by the clerks and displayed on the screens.
For Paul's supporters, this was the final indignity. They'd worked hard to get to the convention. It's not easy winning even a half-dozen delegates in a state. But only the Romney vote was announced by the clerks, even when it was the minority, and no running total was posted. For libertarian Republicans, this was a sign of weakness and petty vindictiveness.
Delegates in the Romney camp were unsympathetic. They cited Paul's failure to endorse the nominee. Naturally, the congressman wanted to withhold his support until he'd extracted the maximum number of concessions. He got planks in the platform endorsing the gold standard and a Fed audit. But at some point before the convention, they said, he needed to join hands with the nominee and pledge to work with him to defeat Obama.
In Wednesday night's speech by Ann Romney and remarks on Thursday by people who've known Mitt Romney and worked with him, delegates and viewers at home were introduced to a person they hadn't encountered in the media. The guy is not the Mormon Gordon Gekko, but a decent, honest, compassionate individual, who has consistently helped others in large ways and small ones. Romney folded laundry for neighbors, chased bees out of an attic, and consoled grieving parents. He stands in stark contrast to the egocentric rock-star president. If you lived next to Obama, you'd be lucky to get an occasional smile and wave as he rushed out to the limo. So if voters ask themselves whom they'd prefer as a neighbor, the election is won.
It's a shame Romney's people have not been such good neighbors within the party. They have not been magnanimous in victory. Just as surely, Ron Paul's supporters have not been gracious in defeat.