Establishment Republicans arrive in Cleveland haunted by thoughts of what might have been. When they see their convention gaveled to order, the man they long to be their nominee will be standing before them: House Speaker Paul Ryan. But he will not be their nominee, and all establishment Republicans will be able to do is consider how strongly their convention could have resembled a much earlier Philadelphia one, where a prominent figure presided over it as well.
Republicans converge on Cleveland facing a seemingly impossible task: Entering battered and shattered, but leaving unified with a nominee acceptable to a majority of delegates and the nation. Externally, they agree the Obama course — an under-performing economy, foreign policy failures, and a government seemingly uncontrolled — is unsustainable. Internally, they disagree on a new course and who should plot it. Presiding over this momentous and contentious convention will be House Speaker Paul Ryan.
As unprecedented as the GOP convention appears to be, for establishment Republicans it should call to mind a much earlier gathering — that one in Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1787.
Like the unsustainable course Republicans see Obama having pursued, the Constitutional delegates came to rectify the unworkable Articles of Confederation.
For Republicans, the stakes in Cleveland are high. Many see this as determining the Republican Party’s future — and at its extreme: if it will continue. Similarly, the Philadelphia convention knew it faced a question whether an American nation could continue and, if so, in what form.
Finally, both share serious internal contention, despite clear recognition of the problem faced and the imperative to fix it. Establishment Republicans in Cleveland confront a chasm between them and anti-establishment factions. The delegates in Philadelphia faced their own internal conflicts — most notably between small and large states, and how power would be apportioned between them.
These two conventions also share another similarity: The men presiding over them.
Traditionally, the senior Republican Member of the House of Representatives presides over the GOP convention. This year, that means House Speaker Paul Ryan. For the Philadelphia convention, no precedent existed; fortunately, it did not need to: George Washington was the unanimous choice.
Like the conventions themselves, the two men presiding share remarkable similarities in the eyes of many attending delegates. Both are unquestioned unifiers with the best ability among any of their colleagues to stand above the fray. Both already played invaluable roles that qualify them to their colleagues: Washington won America’s war for independence; Ryan stepped into the Speakership when House Republicans appeared at the point of dissolution.
Finally and importantly, both sincerely did not want the next job.
Regarding the presidency, Washington rightfully felt he had performed his patriotic duty already and held real doubts as to whether he was even up to the task. On a personal level, he confided to a friend that he was foregoing “all expectations of private happiness in this world” in accepting it.
Ryan appeared no less sincere in his sentiments when he said “that if you want to be the nominee…you should actually run for it.”
The problem for both men: A greater need versus their personal preference.
Washington had to be president. No one had his stature: Even among the Founding Fathers, he was an acknowledged giant. Further, for the new government to succeed — to have legitimacy and a real chance — it needed Washington at its helm. As the Philadelphia convention progressed, the Constitution’s executive authority was tailored to the man presiding over its deliberations.
Ryan, of course, is not Washington, but he too appears to have unique qualifications among Republicans. Even among politicians, he is seen as more than one. And more importantly, for the vast majority of Republicans, who are not politicians and are increasingly distrustful of them, he appears as more than one as well.
While Cleveland this summer is not Philadelphia of two centuries ago, and the nation as a whole is hardly a single political party, their attendees share this existential question. Can they govern?
Philadelphia’s delegates were well aware the stakes of their deliberations were no less than whether a country founded as America had been could survive. Simply, could it govern itself under its self-professed principles?
Establishment Republicans also agonize over that question: Can Republicans govern? They have proven adept at capitalizing on, and unifying in opposition, to Obama. They have large Congressional majorities to show for it and a groundswell of opposition to channel. But the question remains what their agenda is, and can they unite in advancing it.
Unlike Philadelphia’s earlier delegates, establishment the Republicans’ question may go unresolved. They will get no more than a glimpse at their preferred answer to it. “Four more years” will mean something entirely different to them, and during those they can recall the poet’s lament: “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’”