Party Like It’s 1976 || U.S. News

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Party Like It’s 1976

GOP insiders worry this year’s convention could be as fractious as the one 40 years ago.

The potential for a brokered Republican National Convention is fading dramatically because Donald Trump has all but sewn up the GOP presidential nomination. But the chances for a raucous, angry and embarrassingly divided gathering are growing, and many party leaders are deeply worried that a mess in Cleveland in July could cost the GOP not only the White House but many seats in the House and Senate.

Trump and his Republican adversaries have hit several roadblocks as they try to patch things up, They include Trump’s departures from conservative orthodoxy, such as his opposition to free trade agreements, his ridiculing a muscular, interventionist U.S. foreign policy, and his confrontational and often insulting tone. Many GOP strategists are looking back at the 1976 Republican National Convention in Kansas City, Missouri – one of the most divided and rancorous GOP conventions in recent times – for clues on how to navigate this year’s storms.

Party strategists say the ’76 convention offers insights into not only what works in fostering unity but also what to avoid if the party hopes to recapture the presidency and hold onto its majorities in Congress. At the top of the list of problems this year is whether the convention leaves party members bitter and antagonistic toward one another, which in turn could reduce pro-Republican turnout in November.

The ’76 convention featured a battle between President Gerald Ford, who had succeeded to the nation’s highest office when Richard Nixon resigned because of the Watergate scandal in 1974, versus former Gov. Ronald Reagan of California, the rising star of a burgeoning and restless conservative movement. Ford won the nomination but lost the general election to Democrat Jimmy Carter. Many Republicans believe the party, by dramatizing and widening its divisions, sowed the seeds of Ford’s eventual defeat.

Frank Donatelli was the 26-year-old co-director of youth for Reagan, working with Roger Stone 40 years ago in Kansas City. He remembers it as “hand-to-hand combat” to win over individual delegates.

The ’76 convention was also the place where a rising generation of conservatives got into a battle for the soul of the GOP, a struggle which is happening again now as the party prepares for Cleveland and tries to come to terms with the nomination of the ultimate insurgent in Donald Trump. Many of the young conservatives of ’76 went on to play significant roles in the GOP.

Donatelli became Reagan’s White House political director. Stone is an informal counselor to Trump. GOP activist Paul Manafort helped lead Ford’s floor operation, and he is now leading Trump’s delegation operation for Cleveland.

“People talk about how upset people are with Washington [today], but they were back then, too, especially coming on the heels of the Watergate [scandal],” John Sears, Reagan’s campaign manager, told NPR. “There [was] a great deal of anti-Washington feeling.”

Steve Hess, now a political scientist and historian but a key aide to Ford in 1976, recalled that feelings ran so high that delegates and advisers to both Ford and Reagan “came to Kansas City to brawl.” The two sides “came into the convention almost tied” in nominating delegates, Hess told NPR, and they fought over every available delegate.

“It was riotous,” said Craig Shirley, who wrote a book about Reagan’s ’76 campaign, “Reagan’s Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All.” He told Politico: “It went on for hours, and there were melees in the hall.”

Ford had won a series of early primaries, including the first test in New Hampshire, but then, in late March, Reagan scored a breakthrough in North Carolina and began a remarkable streak of victories, making him a real danger to Ford’s nomination.

Reagan argued that he was the authentic conservative in the race and that Ford’s foreign and domestic policies were particularly weak. For his part, Ford portrayed Reagan as a dangerous confrontationalist who could get the United States into another war. Overall, Ford was seen as the right-leaning centrist and Reagan was considered the conservative true believer.

Donatelli told me there were “two things that kind of stick with me.” One was Reagan naming Sen. Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania, a left-leaning moderate, as his vice presidential running mate in advance of the convention. Coupled with this, Reagan and his aides devised a proposal known as Rule 16-C that would have required each presidential candidate to name his or her running mate in advance of the delegates voting for the nominee. This was an attempt to force Ford to name a running mate and possibly alienate enough delegates to throw the nomination to Reagan. It didn’t work. Many delegates saw it as a desperation move in which Reagan turned toward a left-of-center figure to save his campaign, and Reagan narrowly lost a floor vote on the rule by 111 votes. He then lost the nomination to Ford by a similar narrow margin of 117 votes.

The tactic re-emerged this year when Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, named his own running mate, former businesswoman Carly Fiorina, in order to shake up the nomination process. It didn’t work for Cruz, just as it failed for Reagan in ’76. Cruz has since dropped out, leaving Trump the last Republican presidential candidate in this year’s race.

The second thing Donatelli recalls vividly is Clarke Reed, a powerful GOP leader from Mississippi, throwing his state’s delegation, which contained a coveted bloc of uncommitted delegates, to Ford. He imposed a unit rule, mandating that the candidate who got a majority of the delegation would get all the state’s delegates. As a result, under Reed’s direction all 30 Mississippi delegates went to Ford. Reagan forces considered this a heavy blow that dramatically slowed his momentum.

Ford won on the first ballot, 1,187 to 1,070. Ford and his forces tried to be conciliatory and didn’t put up much opposition when Reagan delegates successfully maneuvered to change key planks in the GOP platform. And Ford was gracious in inviting Reagan to address the convention following Ford’s acceptance speech.

But the internecine warfare took its toll. Carter, the former governor of Georgia who billed himself as a Washington outsider, used some of Reagan’s arguments against Ford in the general election. He said the incumbent was a weak leader and was too much a part of the Washington establishment. Carter won.

This same dynamic has Republicans worried again today as negative portrayals of Trump, shared by Democrats and many of his fellow Republicans, weigh him down more than ever.

On a personal note, the 1976 Republican convention was the first one I covered as a journalist (that number will reach 19 after the Republican and Democratic gatherings in July), It was a memorable assignment. I recall intense excitement and suspense among the delegates and the media because the nomination wasn’t preordained, and feverish maneuvering before and during the convention in which the Ford and Reagan forces tried to get the upper hand.

Since then, the conventions for both major parties have become staid, essentially three- or four-day television shows with a predictable plot and few protagonists. Trump pledges to inject some pizzazz into the proceedings, but he hasn’t revealed exactly what he’ll do. Veterans of past GOP conventions worry that it will reflect too much of Trump’s over-the-top personality and turn off many voters.