Top Republican officials are describing their choice of Cleveland to host the party's 2016 convention as a business decision that GOP Chairman Reince Priebus said is all about logistics, not politics. But there are clear political benefits to picking Cleveland even if the chairman can't acknowledge them.
That has nothing to do with the now thoroughly discredited notion that bringing your convention to a pivotal state in the summer somehow delivers its electoral votes in the fall. That just doesn't happen. A candidate doesn't win because of a convention. But he can lose an election because of a bad convention. And in choosing Cleveland over the other finalist, Dallas, the GOP has avoided pitfalls that could have cost them dearly. If Republicans had gone to Dallas to pick their nominee, that nominee would have spent much of the four-day gathering running away from images of the party that would have been decidedly unhelpful to his post-convention task of broadening his appeal beyond just the Republican core.
The face of a Dallas convention, without much doubt, would have been Texas firebrand and Tea Party darling Sen. Ted Cruz. It would have been Cruz in prime time, Cruz on the morning shows, Cruz at the delegation lunches, Cruz on speed-dial for the network bookers 24/7. Of course, he would have to share some of the spotlight with his fellow Texans Republicans. Like the architects of the state party platform who last month added a plank embracing reparative therapy for gays, the controversial psychological treatments that are supposed to help people go straight. And don't forget the platform's tougher language on border issues and immigration. At a time when the Latino vote is becoming more critical in presidential elections, a Dallas convention would have a four-day focus on the GOP's less-than-welcoming attitude toward Hispanics.
All of that would have pleased the party's most conservative faithful who believe that a sharper clarity is needed to win in 2016 after more fuzzy Establishment nominees fell short in 2008 and 2012. But it would have complicated the general election campaign for the nominee emerging from Dallas reminiscent of the last party convention in Texas. The Republican gathering in Houston in 1992 is still remembered for the harsh tone struck. Patrick J. Buchanan gave President George H.W. Bush what he wanted – an enthusiastic endorsement – but also something he didn't want – a call to arms in what he called "a cultural war." He concluded his remarks with a ringing call to "take back our cities, and take back our culture and take back our country." Most troubling to the Bush team is that this conclusion came much later than they planned and pushed former President Ronald Reagan's much more appealing remarks out of prime time. Reagan's speech, the last one he ever made to a GOP convention, was upbeat and optimistic and funny, urging Republicans to appeal to "your best hopes, not your worst fears." But most of America had gone to bed and never saw it.
Earlier nominees were similarly hurt by bad conventions. The Democratic convention in San Francisco in 1984 is best remembered for Walter F. Mondale's pledge to raise taxes, permitting Republicans to run for decades against what Jeanne Kirkpatrick scornfully called "San Francisco Democrats." And Barry Goldwater probably was not going to beat President Lyndon B. Johnson anyway. But his San Francisco convention declaration that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" doomed his candidacy in 1964.
Picking Cleveland does not immunize the party from similarly disastrous speeches in 2016. But it does avoid the self-inflicted wound of presenting Texas as the direction the party wants to go. Instead of Cruz, the Cleveland convention will put forward the much-more bland style of Ohio Republican. For the last century, this swingiest of all swing states has elected lots of Republicans. But none were firebrands who could be labeled as extremists. From Gov. James A. Rhodes to Sen. Robert Taft Jr. and Gov. Robert Taft III, from Gov. and Sen. George Voinovich to today's Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Rob Portman, the state has elected Republicans who are seen as moderate conservatives able to appeal to the middle class and working people.
Without doubt, they lack the flash of Ted Cruz and they will make a Cleveland convention less exciting than a Dallas gathering would have been. It won't be great TV. But for the eventual Republican nominee, that is good news.
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