CLEVELAND, OH — By the time this week is over, it will be apparent, one way or the other, whether the Republicans, who chose to hold their quadrennial nominating convention in this vintage rust-belt town, can rekindle the sense of Middle American unity that once served them so well in national elections.
To judge by events on the floor of the convention and on the TV screens of the nation and, for that matter, in the ranks of the Tennessee delegation here, the question is moot indeed. After a Sunday night welcome party at which delegates from Tennessee and elsewhere were regaled by a reconstructed Three Dog Night and got to mingle for some more or less apolitical good cheer, there were some mixed messages in Monday’s events — maybe even some buyer’s remorse.
That became evident right away at the Tennessee delegation’s first formal get-together, a Monday morning brunch at the Zocalo Tequileria restaurant in downtown Cleveland. The event was hosted by the state’s political Big Three — Governor Bill Haslam and Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker — and, while there were some obligatory mentions of the Republican presidential nominee-to-be, Donald Trump, they were few and tangential.
Corker, who kicked off a round of remarks by the three chief dignitaries, failed to mention Trump at all — interestingly in that he, alone of the three, had been widely rumored as being on The Donald’s original vice-presidential short list and is still thought to be a possibility for Secretary of State.
But perhaps the omission was none too meaningful, inasmuch as the Senator’s remarks were exclusively devoted to thanking the Tennessee delegates for their steadfast participation in the public weal, followed by an introduction of his two colleagues.
The name Trump did get mentioned by Alexander and Haslam — in the first case via Alexander’s assurance t
hat Trump had assured him of his support for a key Alexander bill that aimed at returning control of public education to local communities; in the second instance by the Governor’s expression of regard for Trump’s vice-presidential choice, fellow Governor Mike Pence of Indiana.
The idea in both cases seemed less to climb aboard Trump’s bandwagon than to express gratitude for his accommodations to the concerns of party regulars.
And, even in the small talk of the socializing delegation members as they munched, there were signs of potential unrest. Mick Wright of Bartlett made a point of noting the presence among the Tennesseans of numerous delegates for erstwhile presidential hopeful Ted Cruz, notably including himself.
That fact would be underscored later in the day, when the convention convened for its afternoon organizing session in the cavernous Quicken Loans arena, and a tumultuous conflict arose on the floor following a what is normally a routine motion to approve the convention’s rules.
Instead of the expected vote of acclamation from the assembled delegates, there arose a monumental roar of discord and chants of “Roll Call Vote!” This call came from delegates considered partial to the clearly still extant “Never Trump” movement, and, though it was answered in high volume by chants of “We Want Trump” and “U.S.A., U.S.A.,” those demanding a roll call seemed to be in the majority, as indeed they did when voice votes were asked for Aye and Nay on the roll-call proposal.
There were issues involved in the matter, some involving potential rules changes for the current convention that would allow delegates a greater freedom in voting their choice (as against their obligation), some addressing that issue for future conventions, but basically the roll-call dispute, which went on for a while, amid constant shouting and contradictory rulings from the dais, was a test of strength — decided finally (and arbitrarily) in the Trump delegates’ favor, in a way that suggested there may have been a behind-the-scenes intervention by The Donald himself.
Wright would be quoted in the media at large as saying delegates were robbed of their chance to vote, while another Tennessean, Shelby County’s Terry Roland, complained out loud about “whiners” among the discontented delegates.
Even if things should end with official expressi
ons of hunky-dory on the unity score, the first impression of this convention was one of fierce division within the party, one that could linger well beyond this week in Cleveland.