Rule One: Don’t question the rules.
Rule Two: Unless you want to change the rules to preserve the Ruling Order.
The other day, a surely very nice guy who was identified as a former Colorado Republican Party Chairman appeared on CNN to discuss the latest state of play in the Trump-RNC dust-up. Among other things he dismissed concern over Colorado’s rules for selecting delegates by saying that they had been in place since… 1912.
Uh-oh. In saying this the ex-chairman clearly unwittingly opened a door that makes Donald Trump’s point about GOP Establishment-types monkeying with the rules, and makes it more or less exactly. Why? Well, hop into the time traveling machine and come with me back to, yes, 1912.
The Republican Party is in absolute turmoil. President William Howard Taft is in the White House, the protégé of his predecessor and old friend President Theodore Roosevelt having won the White House four years earlier after TR declined to run for a third term. But now? Teddy Roosevelt is upset with his old friend. It seems Will Taft has turned out to be a tad more conservative than the trust-busting TR approved. OK, actually a lot more conservative. And so TR, more than furious, has plunged headlong into the presidential race, directly challenging Taft for the GOP nomination. Also in the race was a third candidate: the liberal Wisconsin Senator Robert LaFollette.
They battle across the country, with Roosevelt winning 9 of 12 states that had primaries. But the rest of the then-48 states had no primaries. And as the Chicago Convention approached, the delegate numbers stood this way:
La Follette: 36
The battle had shifted to state conventions, and now, arriving in Chicago for the national convention, Roosevelt and Taft were almost even. A sign of just how much animus was simmering was the once routine election of a convention chairman. The New York Times reported the story this way:
CHICAGO, June 18 — To-day’s proceedings in the Republican National Convention demonstrated one thing clearly. That was that the situation, so far as the nomination for President is concerned, is all up in the air. The managers of President Taft’s campaign for renomination elected their Temporary Chairman, Elihu Root, by 558 votes, or only 18 more than a majority, which is none too encouraging a showing.
President Taft must have 540 votes to obtain the nomination. A careful analysis of the vote cast to-day does not justify the prediction that the President will have that many on the first ballot, but the outlook is much gloomier for Theodore Roosevelt than it is for Mr. Taft.
Consequently the talk of a compromise candidate is being heard on all sides to-night, but it is expressed as a hope rather than as a demand, and strength is not being concentrated on any one man.
President Taft’s managers are putting out the claim that they will be able to hold enough of the 558 votes cast for Senator Root to-day to give Mr. Taft a majority when the vote is taken. Roosevelt’s managers, on the other hand, declare that 22 of the delegates who voted for Mr. Root to-day are instructed for and must vote for the nomination of Col. Roosevelt, which would bring Taft’s vote down to 536, four less than are needed.
Got all that? The once routine election for convention chairman was won by the Taft forces with a margin of a mere 18 votes. Then it got interesting. Ohio State University’s Department of History describes it this way:
As Taft and Roosevelt delegates began arriving in Chicago the weekend of June 15, the depth of their mutual enmity became increasingly clear. Roosevelt delegates shouted “thief” and “robber” spontaneously at Taft delegates encountered in hotels or on the streets. Shouting matches and fistfights began to break out in bars, lobbies, anywhere too many Roosevelt delegates ran in to too many Taft delegates. Wild rumors began circulating: Roosevelt supporters would hijack the convention and snatch the gavel away from the chairman; Roosevelt would take the Coliseum by force of armed supporters, Rough Rider-style, in the middle of the night; Oklahoma Roosevelt’s would all arrive packing pistols in order to ensure Roosevelt’s nomination.
… These tensions and rumors had been spurred partly by the pre-convention work of the Republican National Committee, which since June 7 had been adjudicating contested delegates. As expected, the committee backed Taft down the line. Of 254 contested delegates, Roosevelt received 19. Many of these delegates Taft was unquestionably entitled to, as Roosevelt organizations in many states had simply formed bogus “Republican Conventions” from scratch when they failed to capture the genuine articles. (This was especially true in the South, where the Republican Party was only a figment of Federal patronage in the first place.) The Republican National Committee made little pretense of fairness, however, sometimes giving contradictory justifications for awarding delegates to Taft, at all times acting far too quickly to convince anyone they were investigating the “truth” of any particular case. Relatively impartial observers, then and later, estimated that Roosevelt might have been entitled to 30-50 contested delegates, enough to have deadlocked the convention. Instead, Taft entered the convention with the nomination locked up, at least on paper, and Roosevelt entered the convention with a plausible reason to deny its legitimacy. Rank-and-file delegates on both sides entered the convention with a pretense for streetfighting.
Got all that? Way back there in 1912, which that ex-Colorado GOP chairman boasted was the source of the Colorado rules, we find that: “The Republican National Committee made little pretense of fairness…”
And the result of all this?
The night before the convention officially opened, Roosevelt addressed 5000 of his supporters in the Chicago Auditorium. Thousands more crowded outside, unable to get a seat. With even more than his usual fist-pumping verve, Roosevelt elaborated his reform platform, attacked Taft’s bossism and perfidy, and declared him in violation of the Eighth Commandment: “Thou Shall Not Steal.” At the end of the 45-minute excoriation, Roosevelt coined what would be a central slogan of the remainder of his campaign: “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.”
Roosevelt’s supporters were convinced that Taft was steamrolling the convention.
The New York Times reported this of TR’s speech, bold print for emphasis supplied:
“I went before the people, and I won. Now the National Committee and a portion of the convention, which is made a majority only by the aid of delegates not elected but chosen by the National Committee, are trying to cheat me out of the nomination. They can’t do it. As far as I am concerned, it makes no difference. But it is not me they are cheating. It is the people, the rank and file of the Republican Party.”
Shortly thereafter, an angry Roosevelt declared his intention to bolt the GOP. Famously, he did. Running as the candidate of the new third party Progressives — aka the “Bull Moose” party — he split the GOP vote with Taft in the fall and Democrat (and progressive champion) Woodrow Wilson won the White House with 41.8% of the vote.
So what’s the lesson here?
Yes, I like Chairman Reince Priebus. But the fact of the matter is that as in 1912, the RNC — and more generically the GOP Establishment — is once again raising eyebrows about its treatment of the delegate selection process. Donald Trump — like Teddy Roosevelt 104 years ago — is already raising doubts about both the process — and the people — involved.
It’s too soon to say how this convention process will play out. But it takes no imagination to see what could happen to the Grand Old Party if everybody isn’t careful. It has, after all, happened before.