A ‘brokered convention’? Same talk, different cycle

     Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan is shown standing before a cheering Republican National Convention in Detroit in 1980. (AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy, File)

    Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan is shown standing before a cheering Republican National Convention in Detroit in 1980. (AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy, File)

    Political observers are abuzz about the prospect of a contested Republican convention next summer. Under this scenario, none of the presidential candidates would arrive in Cleveland with enough delegates to clinch the nomination; then, supposedly, the power brokers would plot in the backroom to stiff Donald Trump and deliver the crown to someone who’s at least semi-sane.

    The buzz got loud late last week when Republican bigwigs and donors reportedly met to game out the possibility of a floor fight. Within milliseconds, the phrase “brokered convention” surged through the dead-tree media and Twittersphere. And let’s face it, we’d all love to see that kind of convention — the kind that exists mostly in the movies (rent “The Best Man,” released in 1964). It would be a welcome respite from the usual news-free scripted TV snore.

    But don’t hold your breath.

    I’ve been covering politics long enough to be cursed with an institutional memory. If memory serves (and indeed it does), there has been excited chatter about the prospects of a brokered convention (perhaps the better phrase is deadlocked convention, since there are few brokers anymore) in every election cycle since at least 1980. This is a tired old parlor game, dusted off yet again to look new.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    You might say, “But the Republicans are facing an historic impasse! Trump scrambles the usual math! These circumstances are different from anything we’ve ever seen before!”

    But I say: Look at history. Every four years, we hear stuff like this. Here’s an old quote from Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster who feared a delegate floor fight: “The party is up against an extraordinary end-game. If this guy has more convention votes than anyone else, how can we not nominate him? But how can we nominate him?”

    That entire quote sounds like a Republican talking right now about Trump. But the year was 1988, and Maslin was referring to Jesse Jackson. Early on, the civil rights activist led the Democratic delegate count in a crowded field, and party regulars feared a convention brouhaha. Heck, the press was theorizing about that long before Jesse got traction; as far back as May ’87, a Philadelphia Inquirer story foresaw “possibly a brokered convention” one year down the road. But the talk died in spring ’88 as soon as Michael Dukakis posted enough primary wins.

    The talk always dies. In early 1980, when Ronald Reagan was struggling in the Republican primaries against moderate John Anderson and establishment fave George H. W. Bush, there was buzz that ex-President Gerald Ford would ride to the rescue and, according to the Christian Science Monitor, “get enough delegates to become the beneficiary of a deadlock at the convention.” But Reagan stabilized, Anderson bolted the party to run as an independent, and the convention became a coronation.

    Same deal heading into 1984. So many Democrats seemed poised to vie for the nomination that this headline appeared in the press in 1983: “Could The Democratic Party Have a Brokered Convention Next Year?” And in the late winter of ’84, when ex-veep Walter Mondale was trading wins with Senator Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson, the brokered convention talk rose again. Respected columnist Joseph Harsch wrote that Mondale might not have enough delegates to clinch: “The Democratic convention could at that point be blown wide open. Almost anything could happen.” But Mondale stabilized, end of talk.

    And so on. When Bill Clinton was struggling in the ’92 primaries, The Washington Post reported that restive Democrats were nursing “sad hopes of a brokered convention.” When Bob Dole was struggling in the ’96 primaries, The New York Times said there was possibility that no Republican “will amass enough delegates to avoid a brokered convention.” When Republicans assembled a crowded field on the eve of the 2008 primaries, a Republican strategist told The Boston Globe, “If five candidates each win a fraction of delegates … there could be a deadlocked convention.” And early in the GOP’s 2012 primaries, when Rick Santorum had a brief boomlet, the Politico website foresaw “a wild nomination ride that won’t end until the last day” of the summer convention.

    So amidst the buzz of ’15 – a conservative think-tanker tells The Times that “the possibility of a brokered convention is there for the first time in a long time” — forgive me if I seem jaded. Or tempered by experience.

    If the past is prologue, the odds are strong that the currently crowded field will winnow to a blessed few, and that Republicans, who traditionally cherish order and stability, will find a way to avoid chaos. Plus, under party rules, delegates can’t switch loyalties on a whim; most of them are tightly bound to the primary results in their states. Plus, Republicans know that a chaotic, disunited convention would look bad on national TV.

    Unless, of course, the Republicans become so unhinged that they make ignominious history.

    Speaking of history:

    Anyone who doesn’t vote, anyone who thinks it doesn’t matter which party controls the presidency, should remember what happened 15 years ago this weekend. Five Republican Supreme Court appointees — tapped for the bench by Reagan and Bush senior — halted the Florida recount (breaching their own states’ rights principles), and dragged W across the finish line in Bush v. Gore.

    As conservative thinker John DiLulio Jr. wrote soon after, in the conservative Weekly Standard magazine, “The (GOP judges’) arguments that ended the battle and ‘gave’ Bush the presidency are constitutionally disingenuous at best. They will come back to haunt conservatives and confuse, if they do not cripple, the principled conservative case for limited government, legislative supremacy, and universal deference to legitimate, duly constituted state and local public authority.”

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal