Party conventions are an American institution. Good ol’ boy glad-handing and strategy huddles abound, convention center coffee flows freely, and on this occasion, presidential candidates from across the nation have gathered to pay homage to the Republican grassroots. I spent the day at the Classic Center in Athens, Georgia covering the 2015 Georgia GOP convention for The Arch Conservative. Here’s what I saw and heard, along with my commentary on the Republican Party and the people who, for all practical purposes, run it.
The day begins at a breakfast organized by Georgia Secretary of state Brian P. Kemp. A University of Georgia alum and Republican Party lifer, Kemp is beloved in the hallways here. (Across the state, this is less true: Democrats have alleged that Kemp wants to rig elections for the GOP by limiting the franchise of minority groups.) Everyone in attendance seems to have a Bulldog red-and-black Kemp sticker. He’s the quintessential Southern politician, with an impeccably genteel accent and a slick demeanor that has paid huge dividends among the Republican donor set. In the hall outside the ballroom, a loud man in a loud plaid jacket voices his confident opinion that Secretary Kemp will be the next governor. Whether or not Kemp has gubernatorial aspirations is immaterial – people can picture him as governor quite easily. Inside the venue, guests munch on a light breakfast as Kemp opens with introductory remarks. A politician with as much savvy as Kemp can’t resist the opportunity to call his own number, and he treats the crowd to updates on his attempt to organize an “SEC primary” to bolster the South’s clout in the GOP presidential nominating process. He then transitions to campaign mode, boasting of his accomplishments as Secretary of State: “I’m working for secure, fair, and accessible elections.” The crowd applauds, and a few of the Georgia grads in attendance offer up appreciative “woofs.”
I’ve never been as deeply involved with the Republican Party as most of my conservative peers, but I’ve been to enough GOP conclaves to know a few things about the folks who matter in Republican politics in the South. Today’s crowd is a mix of navy-capped veterans, starched-shirt Chamber of Commerce types, College and High School Republicans (many of whom, it appears, have chosen today to don their most patriotic neckwear), and elderly blue hairs known to the restaurant community as the “after-church crowd.” I’m always taken aback by how interconnected the GOP grassroots are – everyone here knows everyone else, not least of all because they’ve probably been attending this Convention for the better part of the last thirty years.
Still, tribes are evident. Tea Party volunteers eschew the campaign stickers and VIP passes of their “establishment” brethren, opting instead for patriotic regalia (including an American flag shirt or two). But these guests are few and far between. The attendees here are of the more party-conscious variety, as one would expect at a Republican convention. Their byword is electability, their creed is the party platform, and their hopes and dreams are inextricably tied to the fortunes of a flawed – and if you ask some people, doomed – partisan political organization.
I have never understood this level of fealty. To me, the GOP has always been a vehicle. It’s a woefully imperfect but functional machine, one that conservatives can use for our political purposes. But these people, in their straw boaters and their bow ties and their coke-bottle bifocals, would be insulted by that characterization of their beloved party. To them, the Republican Party is America’s best hope, and the Republican Party’s iconography (Reagan button, anyone?) represents a sacred bond between people and principle. Sure, it’s all a bit bizarre to an outsider, but the attendees are fiercely loyal to their common cause and to each other. As Bob Putnam might say, these people aren’t “bowling alone.” With voluntary organizations (and social capital in general) on the decline, I can’t help but wonder whether the local party precinct or Tea Party group has replaced the Lions or Rotary Club in rural and suburban Georgia.
After Kemp concludes, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie makes his way to the stage. He’s an unmistakable personality – brash, loud, and confident above all else. A few short years ago, he was considered the frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination. But in the wake of the “Bridgegate” scandal, Governor Christie has become a somewhat diminished player in the eyes of the national GOP. Combine the scandal’s aftershocks with increasing conservative scrutiny of Christie’s stance on immigration and his court nominees in New Jersey, and he’s slid far down the primary election polls. A recent National Review cover depicted Christie as a woebegone Washington, bailing out his rowboat as the Delaware crossing grows increasingly doubtful. The story lambasted Christie’s record as governor.
If Christie’s critics have shaken the Governor’s self-assurance, it doesn’t show. He begins with triumphant scorecard reading, heralding the 2014 successes of the Republican Governors Association (RGA), an organization he chairs. Thanks to the RGA, Christie notes, the citizens of Massachusetts, Maine, and Maryland have Republican governors. He transitions to his record in New Jersey, touting tax cuts and spending reductions and always coming back to a fact that he’s clearly proud of – Christie has accomplished his goals despite a majority-Democrat state legislature. He reminds the crowd that he’s pro-life; as a Northerner, he’s not going to get the benefit of the doubt on social issues. Christie then launches into the electability factor, crowing that his reelection effort garnered the support of 51 percent of Latinos, 22 percent of African-Americans, and 56 percent of women. The more calculating of the party loyalists in attendance perk up at these numbers, murmuring their approval.
Christie reserves a large portion of his speech for foreign policy, perhaps trying to head off concerns that as a governor, he’s poorly versed in international matters. (This stereotype caught up to Wisconsin’s Scott Walker earlier this spring, and with a vengeance.) He names a series of countries in the Middle east – Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen – that are ablaze today because, he claims, the United States has abdicated its leadership on the world stage. Pledging to articulate America’s global prerogatives with clarity and strength, Christie tells the crowd that “Nobody has ever said, ‘I wonder what Chris Christie is thinking.’” The audience provides a laugh, and Christie wraps things up with an anecdote about John Adams and a not-so-subtle reference to the presidential race. It has been a good speech, and the crowd’s standing ovation reflects this fact. I’m skeptical of Christie’s future in the GOP, but it’s early yet. In the end, it comes down to trust. Unfortunately for Governor Christie, he hasn’t built the same trust reservoir – especially in the South – as have his high-profile rivals.
Whenever a like-minded crowd of a certain size congregates, all elements are duly represented – including the fringe. For every stolid Republican county chair navigating the crowd in a spotless suit, there is a flag-draped woman with a stack of “Ben Carson for President” stickers. A neon t-shirt is a dead giveaway that you’re about to be accosted as to your position on Common Core or abortion, or some such hot-button issue. I agree, in principle, with many of these people, especially with the pro-life volunteers. But their presentation and methods are jarring. Around the corner, Athens gun dealer Clyde Armory has set up a booth. What Democrats would call “assault weapons” bristle from every inch of the long table.
That says something, doesn’t it? An item that one of America’s parties would like to ban from private ownership is being advertised outside a state convention of the other party. The scene in the exhibit hall serves as a sobering reminder of the cultural gulf between conservative and liberal America. Conservatives like me laugh at the anti-GMO crowd and the aging hippies at the Athens Human Rights Festival. But if a liberal were to wander in to the Georgia GOP Convention hall, they’d respond in the exact same way – dismissive derision. To some extent, the partisan polarization and tribalism that has come to characterize American politics is as old as the republic itself. But the lifestyle gap that exists between the frail old man distributing “I’m a Christian and I Vote” flyers and the Athens hipsters congregating a mere four blocks down Washington Street is immense. As the size of this chasm grows, societal cohesiveness – that most noble aim of the Burkean conservative – will undoubtedly erode even further.
Huckabee’s people are here. So are Carly Fiorina’s and Rand Paul’s. Scott Walker’s PAC, Our American Revival, has a booth at which a patient volunteer explains that they don’t have any Scott Walker stickers or apparel because, well, “Governor Walker isn’t running for anything right now. We’re just advocating for issues he cares about!” Same goes for Jeb Bush’s allied PAC, Right to Rise. A bespectacled convention alternate wearing a “Guns Save Lives” button summarily informs the Jeb staffers in attendance that he “Don’t trust Jeb one bit.” The staffers take it in stride, launching into a defense of Bush’s record as governor of Florida. But the man has already moved past the booth.
Now, I’m no Jeb Bush advocate (in fact, I think he would be a poor choice for 2016). But this type of superficial judgment call is the rule, not the exception, at the convention. I asked one woman why she supported Ted Cruz, whose logo blared from her red t-shirt. Her answer, “He’s the only one with the guts to fight Washington”, was as far as it went. She seemed to have no knowledge of Senator Cruz’s policy platform. (In fairness, I don’t think the Senator does either – platitudes are more his style these days.) When I asked a Ben Carson fan whether the physician’s lack of government experience worried him, the volunteer shrugged off my question. “Really, I think it’s time for an outsider.” And Carson’s policies? “He is against political correctness.” Ah, yes, that great policy priority, political correctness.
I don’t want to give the impression that these people are anything other than involved, committed patriots – they undoubtedly are. Indeed, it’s incredibly worrisome that the average American knows far less about politics or policy than these folks. But these conversations can’t help but be a little disheartening, especially for those of us who want to see the Republican Party remain an effective vehicle for center-right policy change. Optimists will point out that young Republicans are out in force, and they are. Sprinkled throughout a strikingly geriatric crowd are high school students and undergraduates from around the state. Call me a cynic (you wouldn’t be the first) but I suspect that these GOP youths aren’t any more equipped to defend their beliefs than their seersucker-clad forerunners. A few short conversations quickly confirm this. It seems that young Republicans have received basic conservative tenets through passive osmosis (tax cuts good, big government bad, etc.) but have spent precious little time thinking critically about their worldview or their party. Of course, this is a trend endemic to young partisans and young people in general – it isn’t confined to conservatives. Still, I’m beginning to feel that I’ll walk away from this convention more dispirited about the future of the Republican Party than I was when I walked in.
Marco Rubio had other ideas. The Florida Senator’s remarks last under 30 minutes, but even in his standard stump speech there’s more substance than in the rest of today’s speakers’ comments combined. His speech as been honed over the past couple of months, and now follows a predictable, if compelling, framework. First comes Rubio’s autobiography. Many candidates leave much to be desired when they tell their personal stories. (Looking at you, Jeb Bush – for heaven’s sake we’re aware of your wife’s ethnicity already.) Not Rubio. His biographical introduction is tasteful and well-received, and it’s immediately clear to the crowd that a talented speaker is on the stage. Rubio then spends some time taking stock of the nation’s problems: We’re losing faith in the American Dream, our ability to lead the free peoples of the globe is diminished, and we face international competition on all fronts.
Against this backdrop, Rubio makes his case. He argues that it’s time for a leader for tomorrow, not a leader “from yesterday.” He takes implicit swipes against Hillary Clinton, saying that we can’t elect a president “just because we’ve heard their name for a long time.” He argues for bold leadership as opposed to a caretaker presidency. Foreign policy, an area in which Rubio has quickly established himself as a leader among the GOP hopefuls, comes next. Echoing Governor Christie’s remarks this morning, Rubio denounces President Obama’s tendency to treat enemies better than allies. Rubio’s call to stand with Israel against “any enemy” is met with loud cheers. Summing up his foreign policy vision, Rubio calls for an American foreign policy that “shapes global events rather than one which is shaped by them.”
On the economy and domestic issues, Rubio is less confident. He hasn’t achieved the same level of fluency in this segment of the speech. To make up for this, Rubio repeatedly reminds the audience of his specific policy proposals, chiding other GOP candidates for their lack of concrete plans. Focusing on international competitiveness, higher education transparency, and “pro-growth, pro-family” tax reform, Rubio manages to make usually-uninteresting topics compelling. Until today I’d never seen a crowd stand and cheer for an increased focus on vocational training. Unmistakably absent from Senator Rubio’s speech is immigration. Later tonight at the “Victory Dinner,” Rubio’s senate colleague Ted Cruz will all but certainly provide a gentle reminder of this omission.
For 25 minutes, though, the room is Rubio’s. As he concluded his speech, bringing everything back to his family story and a delivering a stirring paean to American exceptionalism, Rubio was met with near-universal applause. Only time will tell whether Marco Rubio has what it takes to become the GOP nominee, much less president. But if he fails, it won’t be for the lack of a stellar stump speech.
After the speech, I moved to the media area to see Senator Rubio on the way out, hoping for an autograph on the most recent edition of The Arch Conservative. I found his entourage hustling him rather quickly through the backstage area. As he reached the exit door, a man standing next to me yelled out, “I’m from Miami!” and named his elementary and high schools. Recognizing the names, Rubio, who was halfway out of the door, sprinted over to the man and hugged him, explaining that that was “his area.” With that, he’s gone. Outside the Grand Hall, the Rubio supporters beam, Rand Paul volunteers grumble, and a woman with Ted Cruz stickers slaps one on my lapel without saying a word.
Amidst ponderous speeches by Georgia politicians (sorry Senator Isakson and Governor Deal, but dissecting your speeches was beyond the limits of my patience), Rubio’s speech seemed brilliant. But on the national stage, the lights will shine brightly indeed. And they’ll shine more brightly than ever before on Georgia, thanks to Secretary Kemp’s efforts to establish the “SEC primary.” Because of this, Georgians are getting to see the 2016 candidates up close, a luxury long afforded to their eastern neighbors in South Carolina. I hope Georgia’s GOP voters are up to the task. Despite my concerns, I believe they are. For all their quirks and shortcomings, these are good people, and incredibly friendly. Democracy is a complete mess, as many aspects of this convention reflect. But as Churchill once said, we’ve tried all the other forms of government, and they’re all much worse.
— John Henry Thompson is Editor-in-Chief of THE ARCH CONSERVATIVE
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