Gizzi on Politics: Convention Diary

St. Paul, Minn. — Once John McCain announced his choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate the Friday before the Republican National Convention opened, there really was no suspense left to the quadrennial party conclave. In what has become a pattern in recent decades, there was no contest at all for the nomination. As speakers such as former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson and Connecticut Independent Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman focused on McCain’s life in their addresses, and Orson Swindle, McCain’s onetime cellmate at the notorious “Hanoi Hilton,” introduced other former prisoners-of-war on Tuesday night, the convention seemed to be a “This Is Your Life, John McCain” show. But as I walked through the Excel Center and chatted with delegates from many states, I did manage to pick up some political intelligence. . .

Lieberman for Secretary of State?

Returning to the Holiday Inn in faraway Maple Grove, Minn., following Lieberman’s convention address Tuesday, I found the delegates from the Independent Democrat’s home state of Connecticut talking excitedly about him. Many had backed the 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee in the past. As electrical contractor Dave Manson of Stratford recalled, “I sent Joe $1,000 when he first ran for the Senate back in ’88. What did you expect? He was running against Weicker.” Manson was referring to Sen. Lowell P. Weicker, easily the most personally obnoxious liberal Republican in the Senate that year. (With help from the William F. Buckley, Jr. and other anti-Weicker conservatives, Lieberman triumphed that year. Weicker became an independent and won the governorship in a three-way race in 1990. )

Other GOP delegates freely admitted to voting for and contributing to Lieberman in ’06, when he was beaten in the Democratic primary by anti-war leftist Ned Lamont, but went on to win re-election in the fall as an independent.

Lieberman’s Republican fans held back when he was boomed as a possible running mate for McCain. Most of them realized, as GOP National Committeewoman Pat Longo told me earlier this year, “Joe is right on the war, but liberal on nearly everything else.”

But, following his speech, the Republicans for Lieberman began talking about something else for their sometime hero: secretary of state under McCain.

“I didn’t think he should have been Vice President, but, in a McCain Cabinet, yes, former State GOP Chairman Fred Biebel told me. “He’d be an outstanding secretary of state.”
Pat Longo, who called the Lieberman address “outstanding,” agreed.

When I asked him if the senator should be secretary of State, she said without hesitation: “Sure.”

Brian Flaherty of Watertown, former deputy Republican leader of the state house of representatives, said that “If there’s a short list for a McCain Cabinet, Joe should be on it and for more than one position.”

At a delegation breakfast the morning after Lieberman’s speech, I asked Gov. Jodi Rell — who was unable to make it to the convention in person and addressed the delegates via phone — what she thought about Lieberman for the State post. Rell said she had “a lot of respect for Joe, and that’s certainly one option that could be open to him.”

One reason, I figured, that there was so much discussion and enthusiasm about Lieberman in a future cabinet is that, if he did resign, Rell would appoint her state’s first Republican senator in 20 years. And, sure enough, the delegation began discussing possible appointees, including moderate former Rep. (2000-06) Rob Simmons (who is now the state’s Small Business Advocate) and liberal Chase Rogers, the first woman chief justice of the state supreme court.

Changing at Halftime

Old convention hands such as Virginia’s 20-year Republican National Committeeman Morton Blackwell enjoy talking to me about the chief difference in rules governing the conventions of the two major parties: While Republican rules adopted at one convention are “in cement” for the nominating season and the next convention in four years, Democratic rules can be amended, altered, or scrapped at mid-year conferences or “mini-conventions” between presidential election years.

All that appeared to change last week, as the Rules Committee of the convention in St. Paul opted to take a walk rather than to take a swing at a new package of rules that very possibly would have eliminated for 2012 the unpopular early-bird pile-up of states in the nomination process of ’08. Rather than have a vote on the so-called “Ohio Plan”—which would have preserved the early status of New Hampshire and South Carolina and then had the other states go in a rotation by lottery with their primaries or conventions—the Rules Committee chose to create a special panel to deal with 2012 nominating rules. The decision was made in committee by voice vote “and it wasn’t even close,” according to Rules Chairman David Norcross.

“Creating this panel is the only way we’ll get reform,” Norcross, the GOP national committeeman from New Jersey, told me on the convention floor. Under the “postponement” strategy, a special committee will be chosen to address the rules issue when the Republican National Committee meets after the November election. According to Norcross, “This committee will consist of four members elected from each of the regions of the country, three selected by the new national chairman [assuming incumbent Chairman Mike Duncan steps down in November], and six who are not members of the RNC.” Norcross added that the new RNC chairman and the party’s general counsel would also serve on the panel.

Norcross and others believe the idea of a special panel is a good one because it will do what the Rules Committee never seemed to want to do. Eight years ago, a schedule for future nominations known as the “Delaware Plan” was shelved, reportedly because nominee George W. Bush did not want any controversy at his convention. Earlier this year, one member of the Rules Committee told me that McCain campaign operatives made similar overtures to the panel about shelving the “Ohio Plan,” which is what happened.

Many conservatives on the RNC held their breaths on this one, reluctant to speak out because they didn’t want to cause any problems for the McCain-Palin campaign. But they also recalled how, when Democrats at their rancorous 1968 convention, created by fewer than 100 votes a commission to study future party rules, they opened Pandora’s Box, starting a process that continues to this day. (A footnote: The first commission to “reform” the Democratic rules was chaired by then-Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota.

When I saw McGovern at the Democratic National Convention in Denver two weeks ago and asked him if he was proud of his work on rules, the grand old man of liberalism replied without hesitation: “Yes. Before we made the rules change, you would have had to go through ten white men at a convention before you could find a woman or a minority. Now look how many are here!”)