The GOP Grassroots and Establishment Clash Again, over Rules
By John Fund
August 28, 2012 5:40 P.M.
It’s no secret that Team Romney wants a button-downed convention where everyone focuses solely on victory in November and there is no outwardly visible conflict. That goal almost blew up this week when Romney backers led by uber-lawyer Ben Ginsberg engineered a set of rules changes for the 2016 convention that many conservative delegates interpreted as an attempt to insulate Romney from any possible conservative challenge in 2016 should he become president. A last-minute compromise has probably averted a pitched rules fight on the convention floor.
The proposed rules package surfaced last Friday as Team Romney moved to grant sweeping new powers to the Republican National Committee — and the Romney forces who now control it – to amend the governing documents of the Grand Old Party just about any time they want without a vote of delegates from the grassroots. Right now, the only time a major rules change can be implemented is at each quadrennial convention.
But the specific rules change that stuck in the craw of conservative delegates the most was the one that, effectively, would allow presidential campaigns to dump any elected delegates they didn’t like. The move was clearly aimed at thwarting future attempts by Ron Paul–type insurgents to take control of state conventions and elect their own supporters. This year, Paul forces overwhelmed state-party conventions in Iowa, Nevada, and Minnesota, effectively electing their own delegate slates. Other states, including Maine, Louisiana, and Oregon, saw pitched battles between establishment forces and Paul supporters.
Team Romney was able to ram the proposed changes through the Rules Committee but a substantial minority, some 40 percent, vociferously objected. Conservative RNC members who are masters of parliamentary procedure, such as Morton Blackwell of Virginia and Jim Bopp of Indiana, called for delegates to endorse a “minority report” on the floor to block the proposed changes. Bopp called it “the biggest power grab in the history of the Republican party.”
Soon conservatives were weighing in against the rules changes from all over. Rush Limbaugh used his radio show to call them an attack by the Republican establishment against conservatives. “This move clearly shows how detached the party leaders are from their own party, let alone the Tea Party,” Tom Zawistowski, president of the grassroots Ohio Liberty Coalition, told me. He told GOP leaders in writing that passage of the new rules would “severely damage the efforts that our members will make to help win Ohio for the Republican ticket. In fact, I will go as far as to say that it will immediately cost you 5,000 volunteers for your Election Day Task Force project. The party keeps betting that we will support you know matter what you do to us. You lost that bet in 2008.”
And Team Romney appears to have heard the warning sirens from the grassroots: Late Monday, GOP officials stitched together a compromise proposal that will apparently avoid a floor battle. In an e-mail to Republican National Committee (RNC) members, Bopp hailed the agreement as a sign that “the Romney for President campaign has heard the concerns of the conservative grassroots voices in our party.”
The compromise gives both sides the opportunity to save face. Starting in 2016, a presidential delegate who is bound by state law or party rules to support a particular candidate must vote for that candidate. But the actual selection of delegates is left up to the states rather than giving presidential candidates the right to veto delegates selected from the states.
Erick Erickson, who runs the influential blog Red State, says that, if the rules changes had been forced through by Team Romney, many delegates would have concluded that “the fix was in” and that they were being asked to be mere cogs in a top-down party machinery. The good news for Mitt Romney is that few delegates I spoke with blamed him personally for the behind-the-scenes machinations, preferring to blame his underlings. The bad news is that the incident reveals just how tentative the support of anti-establishment delegates for the Romney ticket is. Even the selection of Paul Ryan as the vice-presidential choice hasn’t erased all of their doubts.