Lessons from the GOP’s memorable convention in Cleveland

Delegates celebrate after Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump accepts the party’s nomination Thursday at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.
Delegates celebrate after Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump accepts the party’s nomination Thursday at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. TNS

Calling this week’s Republican National Convention “memorable” seems like an understatement.

Insurgent delegates. A tit-for-tat with the sitting Republican governor of the state holding the convention. Plagiarism in the potential first lady’s big speech.

And that was just the first day.

To come over three more evenings were rollicking speeches from one-time presidential hopefuls Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie, dire warnings about what the country could come to under a Democratic President Hillary Clinton, an air-kissing mishap between Trump and running mate Mike Pence, and star turns behind the mic by four of Trump’s children. Trump himself performed better than many had expected, if still offering a dark assessment of the country he wants to run.

Then there was Ted Cruz.

His deliberate non-endorsement of Trump — in prime time, from the convention stage — set off the sort of rancorous war of words unheard of in past conventions intended to unite loyal Republicans after months of divisive primaries. Peter King, a congressman from Trump’s home state of New York, declared Cruz an “asshole.” Jeff Roe, Cruz’s former campaign manager, asserted Christie had “turned over his political testicles” in endorsing Trump.

“You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” by the Rolling Stones, played after Trump finished accepting the nomination, balloons and confetti raining on the convention floor.

On Friday, an untethered Trump said he wouldn’t accept Cruz’s endorsement anyway, thank you very much, and revived a completely unsubstantiated accusation that Cruz’s father may have been involved in John F. Kennedy’s assassination — this on what was supposed to be the first day of Trump’s general-election campaign. On Sunday, Democrats begin their convention in Philadelphia.

So what did we learn about 2016 in Cleveland?

Nothing unifies like a common foe. The first half of the convention was more about Clinton than Trump. Some headliners hardly mentioned their own nominee, still sounding reluctant to fully embrace him. Others, like House Speaker Paul Ryan, who mounted an impassioned defense of conservative principles, found delegates less eager to hear about matters of policy. (Though Ryan was still warmly received, unlike Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who was met with boos.)

But taking on Clinton? That was something all Republicans agreed on.

“Hillary for Prison,” read a sign Monday from Florida delegate Henry Allen. By Wednesday he’d changed it to Republicans’ new refrain, “Lock her up.”

The 2012 GOP autopsy is dead. In case it wasn’t already obvious, the strategy the party pursued after Mitt Romney’s presidential loss — which brought them a slew of legislative victories in 2014 — has been buried. Out are plans to grow the party by reaching out to more ethnic groups and traditional Democratic constituencies. In is a hard line against illegal immigration, a push for American isolation in foreign policy and an unheard-of rejection — at least in the GOP — of free trade.

Signs handed out at the convention hall Thursday — supposedly in Spanish — read “Hispanics para Trump,” instead of “Hispanos por Trump.”

Cruz made the political gamble of his life. He bet Trump will either lose in November or be so bruised after four or eight years in the White House that Cruz will be able to present himself as the rightful conservative alternative. Some Republicans claim they’ll never forgive him for accepting Trump’s invitation only to snub him. (“Go home!” came the jeers from the convention floor.) Others begrudgingly admit they have new-found respect for Cruz for sticking it to Trump. That’s a lot at stake for a politician only 45 years old.

Trump can give scripted speeches. He may not like them, and reading off a TelePrompTer made him sound monotonous, but Trump offered a more cogent argument Thursday night than he usually does when he’s free-wheeling on the campaign trail.

Some of Trump’s most memorable lines, however, were still ad-libbed. In a self-deprecating aside, he said he wasn’t sure he “deserved” religious conservatives’ support. And in what sounded like genuine surprise, Trump heartily thanked conventioneers who applauded over his support for the gay community.

“As a Republican, it is so nice to hear you cheering for what I just said,” he said. “Thank you.”

By the end of the night, it had become the most-talked-about speech moment on Facebook.

One thing hasn’t changed: Trump still needs an editor. His stem-winder started strong but lost a lot of oomph as it carried on — for 75 minutes.

Florida steered clear of Trump drama. The Sunshine State may play a starring role in the November election, but its 99 delegates were merely spectators to the convention-floor turmoil surrounding Trump’s nomination. Trump crushed his opposition during Florida’s primary, but a sizable chunk of Trump skeptics remained among party loyalists, especially in Miami-Dade County. Still, none of them participated in the brief rebellion to slow a state-by-state nomination vote. The states that seemed most anti-Trump? Utah, Colorado, Washington and Iowa.

Cleveland can host a big show. Delegates (and reporters) descended on the city bracing for a week of unrest in the streets outside the Quicken Loans Arena convention hall. Black fences marked a wide security perimeter. Police cars and helicopters patrolled downtown constantly.

Yet either no troublemakers planned to come, or they stayed away — perhaps due to the large police presence or the prior warnings from federal authorities. Whatever the reason, Cleveland instead got to show off its spruced-up public squares and cordial hospitality instead — assisted by police reinforcements from all over the country, including Florida, who in most cases gave cheery hellos and got warm thanks in return.

Philly, the pressure’s on.