The party predicament

Republicans gathered at their late April spring meetings in Hollywood Florida could be forgiven for thinking they were on a soundstage in the other Hollywood. “Nice political party you got here,” their presidential front-runner has been telling them, loud enough for the world to eavesdrop. “It would be a shame if something happened to it during the upcoming convention.”

Trump didn’t put it in those words, to be sure. But that was the import. His supporters have sent death threats to convention delegates. Reactions from convention organizers and executives have been desultory and equivocal. Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus sought a middle position. He pushed back against #nevertrump adherents by reminding them that “Politics is a team sport and we can’t win unless we rally around whoever becomes our nominee,” and against Team Trump by affirming that “We aren’t going to hand the nomination to anyone with a plurality, no matter how close they are [sic] to 1,237.” House Speaker and Convention Chair Paul Ryan, when not denying his potential last-second candidacy for president, pleaded with no apparent irony for attendance at the July confab in Cleveland: “I think it could be a great, historical exercise. I mean, it could be something that you’ll remember for the rest of your lives.” Former corporate sponsors, mega-activist Charles Koch, and 2008 nominee John McCain are among those voicing their reluctance to attend.

Read together, the threats and responses suggest a lack of readiness for possible troubles ahead. The GOP must prepare publicly as well as privately for repercussions from the following plausible confrontational developments in Cleveland:

  1. A showdown vote on a rules change which one faction sees as grossly unfair.
  2. A presidential nominee who did not run in the primary (aka a “white knight”).
  3. An under-vetted vice-presidential nominee who gets scandalized upon nomination.
  4. A major speech with offensive language.A walkout by a large number of delegates.
  5. Violence involving delegates, principals, security personnel, and protesters.

As categories, none of these is new; all have historical precedents (some from Democratic conventions). But the history is the point. The intensity heading into Cleveland has already reached a near-boil. Videos and memes could go viral; shocks could lodge in brains for lifetimes.

Crises draw bigger than normal crowds to watch, and engender bigger than normal moments for participants. And make no mistake, this is an existential crisis for the elected officials, big donors, party executives, political consultants, interest groups, think tanks, lobbyists, advocates, and unbound delegates lumped together under the rubric of the Republican “elite,” “Establishment,” or “Washington.”

The proximate cause for the crisis is that the top two candidates for the presidential nomination are, in a word one of them is fond of, losers. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are unpopular across the ranks of Republican voters, and extremely unpopular across the general electorate. A mid-April state-by-state survey of 44,000 voters by Morning Consult projected that Hillary Clinton would crush Cruz and Trump in the electoral college. The same poll forecast her losing to John Kasich. But Kasich cannot get the nomination without machinations likely to spark resentment from Trump and Cruz and their supporters.

The party predicament runs deeper. As of the April 26 primaries, Trump and Cruz held a combined 81% of the delegates, with 79.5% of the total allocated. The two men are in personally rancorous competition with each other. Trump calls Cruz “Lyin’ Ted”; Cruz addresses Trump as though he were a child. But the mutual rancor should not obscure the fact that both candidates got to this juncture by voicing hostility at the very party whose nomination they seek.

To be sure, they don’t assail the GOP by name. But their anti-elite, anti-Establishment, anti-Washington, rhetoric has ranged well beyond the norm for outsiders seeking the presidency, and implicates the party in the process. Cruz, famous for trying to shut down the federal government through a 2013 filibuster and 16-day funding cutoff, espouses extreme positions, sometimes in violent language: a return to the gold standard, carpet bombing ISIS, abolishing the IRS, ripping to shreds the Iran nuclear deal, breaking up the “Washington cartel.” Trump’s tweets and comments have intimated violence from his supporters if he does not get his way. His misogynistic, racist, religiously prejudiced remarks are essential to his public style. His policy statements are wild, shallow, and inconsistent except for his commitment to wall off the country’s southern border. He deems all politicians losers.

Both men have promised radical and wrenching changes to American life, well beyond taking a sledgehammer to the government. As Kasich, who has been stuck for months in the role of bystander/critic because of his low vote totals, told the editorial board of the Washington Post: “If you don’t have ideas, you got nothing, and frankly my Republican Party doesn’t like ideas. They want to be negative against things.”

The main purpose of a political party is to win elective offices in order for those incumbents to set government policies. The GOP is the government: it holds more US offices than at any time in its history. The GOP has policy positions, ideas it wants to put into practice as well as bring to a halt. But primary season has delivered a stunning repudiation of its brand. With either Trump or Cruz as its 2016 nominee, the party faces a stretch of 12 or 16 years without the presidency, and projects a set of policy positions more destructive than constructive. Splinter parties could drain media attention and public support. Control of the US Senate and Supreme Court could be lost. The demographic scales could tilt adversely for a generation.

In sum: four of five voters to date in the Republican primaries have chosen candidates who will destroy the party as it currently operates—win or, more likely, lose in November.

Negotiation and narration

We write as non-Republicans with expertise in strategic political management and a patriotic interest in avoiding further deformation of one of the nation’s two major parties. Healthy democracies require parties that many citizens will vote for and offer realistic alternatives to each other, sustaining informed dialogues on policy directions and oversight on policy implementations. We have this piece of gratuitous advice for the Grand Old Party: you will do best in moving toward November 2016 by also looking beyond it. In practical terms, this means playing a long game in negotiating with Trump and Cruz, and narrating a long story with the party as a central theater for action. Republicans should base their management of convention confrontations on mapped moves and scripted moments, not to enact as planned, but to have in mind such that the inevitable improvisations will make optimum good sense.

Negotiations

First, negotiations: While its official operatives must remain and be seen as neutral regarding the outcome, the party nevertheless commands considerable resources that can be brought to the table in dealing with the rebel front-runners: line authority to shape convention proceedings, outwardly radiating sway with campaign volunteers and contributors, raw and analyzed voter data, control of media access (including to the formal debates) and of course, a name-brand line on pretty much every ballot in the nation. Negotiators can signal how much they intend to move these resource throttles behind the nominee, from full steam to perfunctory to full stop. (We acknowledge that in treating the GOP as one side in two-player bargaining games we gloss over coordination challenges, presuming a unanimity of positions among what is, in fact, a disparate collection of persons.)

Donald Trump lives to threaten and strut. He seems unlikely to lose quietly to Cruz. Should he lose the nomination, he could very well decide to stage his own show in the form of a third-party ticket or constantly advise his supporters to stay home in November. Tweets cost nothing. However, Trump cannot and would not self-finance his general election campaign. RNC negotiators should direct funds and data his way as rewards for speaking inclusively and politely. Privately, they should lean on him to not react instantly and churlishly whenever he gets criticized. To judge by Trump’s new campaign manager Paul Manafort’s leaked remarks to the Hollywood (FL) crowd, Trump understands that. We’ll all see.

Ted Cruz is caught in between the front runner and the most electable GOP candidate. He lacks Trump’s credible exit threats, but his conservatism could prevail in the platform writing. He can play the long game, given his age and strategic acumen. Party elites should make it clear to Cruz in private that he has a long bright future inside the party—a Supreme Court nomination, perhaps—unless dispositive evidence bears out Trump’s now-familiar sobriquet for him with respect to adultery and dirty campaigning. He needs to air any laundry now, before others do it for him at a time and in a frame that could ruin his “principled conservative” brand.

Kasich could gain support from GOP elites as Rubio did in February; indeed he could gain delegates from the Rubio camp. But there must be widespread tacit doubts about him, as his endorsements and bankroll remain low along with his vote and delegate totals despite his standing as the last of the “traditionals.” That means going into the convention there is more risk than return for the party to move to help him.

The Cruz-Kasich alliance announced April 24 makes short-run sense as an effort to conserve campaign resources in attempting to keep Trump from a first-ballot victory. But succeed or fail it does not resolve the party predicament; the alliance dissolves the second the nomination outcome becomes known, and perhaps sooner as expedience and efficiency dictate. Cruz is anti; Kasich is pro; they have agreed on nothing in terms of policy matters. The Cruz-Fiorina “ticket” announced April 27 is also in this vein, although this partnership cannot be dissolved should it succeed as a stop Trump tactic. Neither maneuver changes the negotiation terms between Cruz and the party elites.

Narration

Turning to the narrative: The most important tool available to soften the rebel messaging is familiar from governing institutions, the minority report. Publishing and promoting dissents can plant stakes for a big tent beyond 2016 even if it fails to repair the notoriously tattered current reputation of the party. Disseminating counter-nominee opinions will also provide down-ballot candidates a framework to embrace should they opt to distance themselves from the nominee.

However, the big step the GOP can take in this regard involves the individuals who voice and embody alternative visions. History suggests that it is likely that the 2020 nominee will be in attendance in Cleveland. That individual’s candidacy could be launched by delivering remarks creating a buzz throughout the arena. Remember Obama in 2004.

But for dissents and buzzmakers to have lasting and profound value, they must innovate. Many of the old GOP lines have been invalidated by voters’ rejection of them as espoused by the 14 eliminated (and, at times, humiliated) candidates. It would be counter-productive for anyone to echo what Romney, Bush, and Rubio campaigned on unless using them as springboards for something distinctively new.

Innovators must craft inspiring and specific 2020 language that takes account of:The stratified impacts of the changing nature of work when promulgating budget ideas. Middle-class career paths have been obscured to the point where only 27% of registered voters believe that the next generation will be better off economically than the current generation. Calls to end the “death tax” don’t resonate with them any longer.

  1. The stratified impacts of the changing nature of work when promulgating budget ideas. Middle-class career paths have been obscured to the point where only 27% of registered voters believe that the next generation will be better off economically than the current generation. Calls to end the “death tax” don’t resonate with them any longer.
  2. Cyberwar and climate-triggered regional conflict when talking about foreign and military policy. The Pentagon has done this already. Trump can’t do it substantively or credibly, to judge from his April 27 foreign policy address.
  3. What the phrase “politically correct” does for the other side, that is, acknowledges the civic values of personal identity and social toleration in a diverse population without appearing to put those values above First Amendment freedoms. The preamble mission statement of the current version of the RNC Rules has some of this language:

BE IT RESOLVED, That the Republican Party is the party of the open door. Ours is the party of liberty, the party of equality, of opportunity for all, and favoritism for none.

Speaker Paul Ryan is reportedly preparing a long-view framework with his agenda project. Unveiling it before Cleveland would be timely. However, for Ryan to enter the convention with innovative and optimistic proposals serving as the lance of the white knight is riskier than casting Kasich in that role, because then his agenda would be along for the 2016 ride, and could therefore be discounted by voters as yet more establishment gimmickry.

Trump, Cruz, and Kasich ought to be part of the 2020 agenda dialogue as well. But it must be conducted with a broader and longer perspective.

The RNC should feature convention delegates prominently and symbolically in the rule-making and platform-writing processes. Again, the preamble:

It is the intent and purpose of these rules to encourage and allow the broadest possible participation of all voters in Republican Party activities at all levels and to assure that the Republican Party is open and accessible to all Americans.

They can contrast their approach with the super-delegates of the elitist Democratic Party. An RNC Rules Committee member, Solomon Yue, and the Cruz campaign proposed shifting to Robert’s Rules of Order, which would have greatly empowered the delegates. The Hollywood crowd rightly rejected it. But milder moves, such as posting all delegate written (and filtered) social media content, would walk the preamble talk.

That content, in turn, should be a featured part of a full-bore education campaign on how the party makes rules, and how each old rule that gets retained and each new rule that gets instituted comports with the values in the mission statement. The party should stress continuity as well as fairness. It should aggressively remind the public that while the GOP operates in accord with ideals, laws, and principles as constituted in our government, it is an extra-Constitutional organization in a political marketplace. Elections are part of the federal system but nominations and conventions are not, technically speaking.

What the RNC says to its previous electoral coalition gets to the nub of the existential problem. The results of the campaign to date compels the leadership to revamp the way they treat the large minority and potentially swing constituency of white working class voters, who are no longer in line with either conservative doctrine or corporate interests. What large numbers of poll respondents are saying in effect when they choose “he tells it like it really is” as their reason for supporting Trump is that the rest of you people don’t. And it’s what Cruz’s vow to “return to conservative principles” means too, from a different angle. The front runners have banked on the fact that Republicanism has been voided in many buyers’ eyes.

In other words, the GOP needs reinvention because its electoral base no longer trusts its elected leadership at the national level, including the Tea Party cadre, to deliver on its core promises to them: a good shot at a better life through security, opportunity, and limited government. All Republicans are, in this sense, losers. Blaming Obama, blasting Clinton, and, excoriating Trump are at best but a preface to a “story told in the future tense,” to quote historian Lawrence Freedman’s definition of strategy. If the likely party nominee is not an acceptable Republican, then what does being a Republican mean?

Redefinition can best be accomplished with a long time frame foremost in mind as Republicans work their way into and through their convention. In campaign politics, the next cycle is long term. It would not do to speak of 2016 as a “rebuilding year,” a common euphemism for sports teams with losing records. Victory and unity remain the thematic orders of the day. But as they negotiate alliances and allocate resources, having 2020 uppermost in mind has much to recommend it. At the least, lengthened time horizons can skirt the bloated expectations trap of “On Day One of my presidency” promises.

Now that the GOP has left Hollywood Florida, it ought to borrow more from Hollywood California. To escape the gangster genre, it needs to start telling an epic tale of national adventure.