What a week for Cleveland!
On the second Tuesday of a sweltering July, the Republican National Committee announced it was bringing its 2016 presidential convention — and all the economic kick and image glories that go with it — to the city that for decades has gotten national attention mainly as a late-night TV punchline.
Then, just three days later, the national basketball conglomerate known as LeBron James announced that he was spurning the allure of Miami’s South Beach to return to Lake Erie’s shore.
Instantly and expertly, pundits and talking heads made the lateral transition from ho-humming about Republicans’ political motives to head scratching about an NBA superstar’s sudden yearning for home cookin'.
Today we are all about the former. And we will end up by exclusively focusing upon a central lesson of convention politicking other pundits apparently missed. A lesson taught to grateful politicians four decades ago by Cleveland’s distinguished former mayor, Ralph Perk.
It isn’t hard to deduce the true motives of Republican Party leaders’ decision to hold their 2016 convention in Cleveland. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus laid out the strategy when he announced the RNC site committee’s choice on Fox News July 8.
“As goes Ohio, so goes the presidential race,” Priebus explained. Indeed, the history of the modern era is that when the Republican presidential candidate wins in Ohio, the Republicans win the White House. When Republicans lose Ohio, they lose the presidency.
Of course, holding a convention in a crucial swing state hardly guarantees a presidential victory. But GOP strategists agree it sure can help. It will bring jobs and money into the state.
Also, it will be a vehicle for spreading the GOP’s political message through that swing state. And that can greatly help Republicans. But only if the party has developed a coherent message that is inclusive and not divisive in that state where independent-minded voters in suburbs often provide the margins of victory.
Inclusive message politics hasn’t been something the Grand Old Party has been very grand at in recent years. But it has done a better job of it on the state level, in Ohio.
Two top Ohio Republicans, Sen. Rob Portman and Gov. John Kasich, are on many Republican lists as possible longshot candidates for president and more likely candidates for vice president in 2016.
Either one could help Republicans capture Ohio and the presidency. Yet Portman and Kasich represent two different concepts of what the GOP can be about. Portman is a traditional Washington-centric Republican candidate — and an impressive one.
Kasich is, well, something else. He can be a staunch economic conservative; as House budget committee chair he helped balance the last federal budget during the Clinton presidency. But back then he also supported a ban on assault weapons. And he still champions social safety net efforts. After a rough start as governor, Kasich is campaigning for re-election this year with polls well above 50 percent. He also complicates life for folks who like to pigeonhole politicians, having once proclaimed: “I think I was in the tea party before there was a tea party.”
Cleveland hasn’t hosted a presidential convention since 1936, when Republicans gave Alf Landon the honor of challenging President Franklin D. Roosevelt. But in 1972, Cleveland hosted another convention that might have been forgotten forever — except for the enlightening lesson Mayor Perk taught there for future politicos.
Hoping to enliven a mundane ribbon-cutting ceremony to open the American Society for Metals conference at the old Cleveland Convention Center, the mayor reached not for traditional scissors but a blow torch. He carefully aimed it at a commemorative ribbon made of titanium.
Sparks flew, and the ambitious Perk set his own hair on fire. Mercifully, onlookers rushed forward and extinguished Hizzoner’s flaming locks (before any of the mayor’s opponents could helpfully suggest: “Go soak your head!”).
Today, in an era when ambitious politicians increasingly seem tempted to overreach, especially whenever cameras are around, both parties should be forever grateful to Perk for having bequeathed for the ages his enlightened lesson of conventional wisdom:
No matter how much you desire to leave a lasting impression with your fellow convention delegates, try not to set your own hair on fire.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive.
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