This morning I was on Mike Church’s Sirius XM radio show to talk about my post on “Buying Off the Ron Paul Vote.” Going over my notes about how Pat Buchanan’s delegates were treated at the 1996 Republican convention in San Diego reminded me of just how thoroughly the GOP can frustrate a sizable block of delegates. Buchanan went to the convention with some 200 delegates out of 1,990 — so a bit better than 10 percent. (Supporters’ estimates for Paul’s delegate numbers this year range from 104 to 201 so far.) In 1992, with far fewer delegates, Buchanan had received a prime-time speaking slot. What did he get in 1996? Nothing, because he refused to settle for what the establishment was offering: as the New York Times reported, “A Republican official familiar with the offer said Buchanan would have made a 15-second appearance in a 7-to-8-minute presentation on values.” A pre-taped presentation on values, at that.
Nor did the party bosses feel the slightest need to satisfy the 200 Buchanan delegates at the convention itself. As Wikipedia notes, “Nearly all floor speeches were delivered by moderate or liberal Republicans, including the keynote address by New York Congresswoman Susan Molinari,” an outspoken supporter of abortion rights. That prompted Buchanan delegates to threaten a walkout during her speech (and in fact, some did leave), though PJB urged his supporters not to do it.
Buchanan’s showing in the 1996 primaries was an indication of where the activist energy lay in the GOP: with social conservatives and the confrontational right. Dole didn’t want any of that; he was content to run as Bill Clinton’s elderly uncle. That the election in November didn’t give Clinton an outright popular-vote majority is testament to the fact that a stronger candidate would have given the incumbent a run for his money. As it was, Dole gave conservatives in general and Buchanan supporters in particular no reason to get out and vote. By 2000, the right was so desperate to put a Republican back in the White House that it mounted no serious opposition to the nomination of George W. Bush — John McCain certainly wasn’t bidding for conservatives’ votes — but again the nominee’s watery ideology led to something less than a popular-vote majority. Indeed, it led to a popular-vote plurality for Al Gore. By 2004, the likes of Karl Rove had learned their lesson from Buchanan and went hard after the “values voters,” who that year gave Bush the first GOP popular-vote majority since 1988.
Ron Paul showed where the GOP’s activist energy lay in 2008, and the party bosses have been quicker this time to adjust the party’s image, in part because they think tweaking their hoary narrative that presents Republicans as the party of smaller government will be enough to fool dupe inexperienced activists that Paul and the Tea Party have brought into their tent. (You would have thought that the Dubya years would have killed off that narrative once and for all, but apparently not. Democrats and liberals, for their part, are so dependent on the myth of Republicans as Social Security-slashing ogres that they won’t campaign against the real GOP, which favors plenty of big government for its own constituencies.)
The Republican establishment doesn’t want to offend Paul’s supporters needlessly; they want to cut a deal, the cheapest deal possible. The Buchanan treatment is the floor: you get nothing, we get your votes. Social conservatives in 1996 were supposed to be placated by the fact that the party kept pro-life language in its platform — in other words, be thankful that we didn’t take away what you already had. Nominee Dole quickly showed any voters who were paying attention just how seriously he took the platform. The right has few grounds to expect more consistency from Romney.
A prime-time slot like the one Buchanan received in 1992 is probably out of the question for Ron Paul, though perhaps Sen. Rand Paul could receive one. Unlike Buchanan in ’92 and ’96, Congressman Paul may not even endorse the nominee — I don’t think he will — and the party won’t tolerate that. Nor would they be confident that Ron Paul would stick to a script in any convention address. Maybe they’ll offer Paul, like Buchanan, some taped remarks on a safe subject. Fifteen seconds in an eight-minute video? Ok, how about 30 seconds?
A political party values the appearance of unity above almost all else at a presidential convention — “almost” because the two things more important than making sure everybody smiles for the photo op are making sure that the party (not conservative principles, but the party) wins in November, as well as making sure that the key elite interests within the party get the policy results they want. In contrast to the Paul delegates, Santorum delegates will be cheap dates, much as Ralph Reed’s troops were in 1996: the abortion plank, hype about gay marriage, and some hot talk about “America’s enemies” will keep them in line.