A contested convention is no panacea for those against Trump

March 22, 2016
Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to reporters as he leads the news media on a tour of the construction site of the Trump International Hotel at the Old Post Office Building in Washington, March 21, 2016.   REUTERS/Jim Bourg

Donald Trump leads reporters on a tour of the construction site of the Trump International Hotel Building in Washington, March 21, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

Any chance that the increasingly likely nomination of Donald J. Trump as the Republican standard-bearer could successfully be contested lies somewhere between dim and dimmer. Looking at this summer’s Republican National Convention, in Cleveland (or, perhaps, looking away), only Trump is likely to come close to the 1,237 delegates needed to win. The two surviving challengers — Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Ohio Governor John Kasich — are so far behind that a claim by either on the nomination would seem like theft.

The dream of the so-called Republican establishment is to block Trump simply by making it impossible for him to get the number of delegates he needs — a tactic that depends on Cruz or Kasich winning primaries that they’re unlikely to win (such as Tuesday’s in Arizona), or persuading uncommitted delegates (there will be some) to switch at some imagined “open” convention.

If that seems unworkable, if an improvised cabal made up of supporters of every losing candidate can’t succeed, there is talk of a third party, with candidates — former Texas Governor Rick Perry, anyone? — who might be less electable than Trump, at some cost to the party’s wounded brand.

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Dwight D. Eisenhower (L) and Senator Robert Taft. Courtesy of Eisenhower Presidential Library.

The last successfully contested convention — complete with bitter floor fights — unfolded in 1952, when Republicans, meeting during a hot week in Chicago, picked their nominee. Then, as now, much depended not only on delegate arithmetic but also on party rules, and on men (no women had a role then) who had the political skills to use them. Because delegates were mostly chosen by party leaders, they could be persuaded to switch by other party leaders — an invitation to floor fights and challenges.  

Heading into Chicago, Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, the son of President William Howard Taft, was clearly in the lead. He had commitments from 500 of the 604 delegates needed to win the nomination. As Taft’s biographer Robert A. Patterson has pointed out, “Most of the 500 hated and feared the Eastern ‘Dewey wing’ of the party,” a reference to New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey. He had twice run for president and twice lost, first to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1944, then to President Harry S. Truman, in 1948 — the latter still regarded as a legendary upset.

The candidate of the “Dewey wing” was General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the former Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War Two, who arrived in Chicago with commitments from about 450 delegates.

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Delegates on the floor of the 1952 Republican National Convention. Courtesy of Eisenhower Presidential Library.

There were other, longshot contenders whose only chance lay in a convention stalemate. Among them were Governor Earl Warren of California, Governor Harold Stassen of Minnesota and General Douglas MacArthur, who seemed to have become slightly unhinged since Truman, in April 1951, fired him from his command post in Korea. MacArthur gave the keynote speech, during which he spoke of a “deep sense of fear that our leaders in their insatiate demand for ever more personal power might destroy the Republic.”

Taft was a mainstream Republican in an age when the mainstream skewed toward isolationism, anti-New Dealism and fiscal conservativism, though he was surprisingly progressive on such issues as old-age pensions. With his rimless glasses and shiny comb-over, he looked the part. As the best-selling novelist and former New York Times reporter Allen Drury wrote, Taft was someone who “came dangerously close to the line that separates the man of argument from the man of arrogance.”

But Taft was also a man of great integrity — even Truman liked and respected him — and beloved by party regulars. He had run before, in 1940, and lost the nomination to an outsider, Wendell Willkie; since 1948, he had become the favored nominee. A 1951 Gallup poll showed that five of six Republicans held favorable opinions of Taft, though slightly more than half of independents did not.

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Dwight D. Eisenhower at the Republican National Convention in Chicago, 1952, Courtesy of Eisenhower Presidential Library.

Yet since 1948 there had been talk of drafting Eisenhower, not only from Republicans (Dewey had endorsed him on Meet the Press, in 1950) but from Democrats, including Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr. Eisenhower first came out as a Republican in January 1950.

Taft worked hard. As Patterson noted, by late June he had campaigned in 35 states, traveled 50,000 miles and was seen by about 2 million people. In his Chicago headquarters, his organizers provided music (Sammy Kaye’s orchestra) and appearances by such movie stars as Gary Cooper and John Wayne.

For all that, Eisenhower had advantages that no anti-Trump Republican, even one within theoretical striking distance of the nomination, would have. Chief among them was a tough, professional team of operatives that included the Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., who had helped persuade Eisenhower to run; New Hampshire Governor Sherman Adams, Ike’s floor leader, who had played a role in helping the general win the New Hampshire primary — even though Eisenhower never campaigned in the state or, for that matter, in any state.

Above all, Eisenhower, regarded as an American hero, had the advantage of being viewed as a winner — far more electable than Taft, to whom the phrase “Taft can’t win” was often attached.

For modern Republicans, a belief that “Trump can’t win” would be the major obstacle to his getting the nomination. Though delegates whom Trump wins are, in theory, bound to him on the first ballot, Republican National Committee rules are flexible enough that many could be unbound.

Who, though, could work the floor for a non-Trump candidate? Certainly not Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who, though reluctantly endorsing Cruz, previously declared his loathing for the Texas senator. Kasich has the benefit of the gifted consultant John Weaver, but may not have won enough delegates by the time of the convention for that to matter.

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Dwight D Eisehnower campaigning in Maryland, 1952. Courtesy of Eisenhower Presidential Library.

Perhaps someone who wants to be vice president? In 1952, Senator Richard M. Nixon, a member of the California delegation, tried to undercut “favorite son” Warren. Whatever Nixon’s motive, apart from supporting Ike, it wasn’t held against him when Eisenhower chose him as a running mate. Consider the possibilities!

A key moment in the Taft-Eisenhower fight came in a dispute over the Texas delegation: whether to seat delegates whose credentials were under dispute. Lodge, Ike’s chief strategist, refused to compromise over the number of contested delegates , arguing that Taft supporters wanted to “rig” the convention. A “fair play” floor vote over rules that today seem impossibly arcane gave Eisenhower the delegate votes he needed.

Taft’s furious backers didn’t riot, as Trump seemed to threaten might happen if he were to be deprived of the nomination. But they didn’t conceal their fury. At one point, Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen stood, pointed his finger at Dewey (perhaps the most hated person in the hall) and said, “We followed you before, and you took us down the road to defeat!”

On the day of the balloting, Taft’s delegates sang Onward Christian Soldiers as they marched into the convention hall. But the end came swiftly. Eisenhower quickly got to 595 votes, after which Minnesota switched 19 votes to the general, which put him over the top.

In Cleveland this summer, a more likely, though still farfetched outcome would be a brokered convention, which would mean bypassing the three contenders and finding someone who could satisfy every faction, much as Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) managed to satisfy moderate Republicans and Tea Party activists to win the vote to replace John Boehner as House speaker. Ryan, who might fit that role again, swears he doesn’t want it. But he said the same thing about the speakership.

In the summer of ’52, Richard Rovere, writing in the New Yorker, said that “if the delegates had felt free to follow their own impulses, they would have nominated [Taft] by a very healthy majority and would have worked their hearts out for him.” Even without that fervor, Eisenhower won a landslide victory over Democrat Adlai Stevenson — the first Republican presidential victory since 1928.

For eight years, the GOP became the Eisenhower Party. It had its disrupters, among them Senator Joe McCarthy. But it reflected moderation, and the judicious temperament of a soldier whose greatest strength had to do with issues of war and peace. He left office deeply admired by his country.

In 1964, Republicans, still itching for a genuine conservative candidate, nominated the Arizona Senator Barry M. Goldwater to run against President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had succeeded the murdered John F. Kennedy. With that, the angriest voters in the Republican Party — those who had long felt ignored by the establishment — got the candidate they really wanted.

7 comments

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The discussion is moot. Trump will have the votes on the first ballot. He has tapped the core of the GOP base and the establishment, who are fakers, have lost control.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

If Trump gets the nomination, expect the establishment Republicans to seek options elsewhere outside the party, and that leads them directly to Gary Johnson.

Posted by tannim | Report as abusive

It’s over, check mate.

Posted by cheeze | Report as abusive

If the establishment R’s want to broker this convention, they’ll figure out a way. They’re just that good at obstruction. They have become the Anti-Democracy party, so what do they care?

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

Paul Ryan has already said a brokered convention will happen. He’s the elected speaker of the House. Trump has never been elected to anything. And never will be. He’s a loser. His whole party establishment knows he’s a loser.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

I am not saying that Trump can win. I just think that if Trump can’t win, then what chance do the other two guys have? Ted Cruz is farther right than any other candidate, and Kasich apparently cannot get any support outside of his home state.

Posted by Sewblon | Report as abusive

Republicans won’t seat a President for 30 more years, at the earliest. After what Bush and Cheney did to this country, only the dumbest AM radio listeners are ready to jump back into that toilet.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive