GOP's ray of hope for a brokered convention

In what former House Speaker Newt Gingrich routinely calls “the most important election of my lifetime,” the GOP options for the presidential nomination remain unpopular and unpredictable.  Just when pundits were declaring the inevitability of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s Republican presidential nomination, Gingrich pulls off a landslide win in South Carolina to muddle the race once again.

With four candidates left, Romney, Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, many conservatives feel that they have been left with no candidate who they can feel comfortable fighting for, tooth-and-nail, against President Barack

Republican enthusiasm for the general election is concentrated on the desire to beat Obama, not on any single candidate.  The only exception is perhaps the cadre of Paul supporters that continue the crusade to make libertarianism the central plank of the Republican Party.  But even Paul himself has mentioned the fact that his primary goal is to “win the next generation”, not assume Oval Office leadership.

Romney is seen by his detractors as a Massachusetts moderate, in the vein of the hated Rockefeller Republicans, who is a phony, flip-flopper.  Gingrich is seen by his detractors as erratic.  His appeal to Tea Party voters lies in his wrecking ball approach toward Obama, liberals and the mainstream media, along with the establishment of the Republican Party itself.  In many regards this is what many in the GOP fear, that the Gingrich wrecking ball will burn through the party and the country itself.

On one side is a man whom conservatives can’t stomach to see lead the party for the next four to eight years, and on the other a man who might destroy it in less than one.

So the battle between Romney and Gingrich, with Paul tagging along to further his message and perhaps pick up a large number of delegates along the way, could very well last longer than any GOP primary in recent history.  If no candidate can pull in 1,144 of the 2,286 delegates, then Republicans could potentially have a brokered convention.

A brokered convention is giving some conservatives a glimmer of hope that one of their preferred candidates that isn’t even in the running at this time could step in and save the Republican Party from having to stand behind a man that inspires little positive feeling or

There is historical precedent for a Republican presidential nominee chosen completely out of the blue at a brokered convention, but one has to go back well over a century to find a similar circumstance, and it was in the era before primaries.  However, given the unusual circumstances of the race and voter discontent with the nominees, something as strange as a last-minute entry is not out of the realm of possibility.

The rules regarding the Republican primary have changed over time, with more focus on the convention itself and power brokers in the party, but if the battle for the nomination continues to linger beyond Super Tuesday, the convention could be where the election is decided.

The Republican presidential nomination fight of 1880 pitted a number of prominent, but highly controversial, candidates against each other in a deeply divided party.  They were challenged with facing an extremely popular Democrat candidate, Winfield Scott Hancock, who was one of the heroes at the Battle of Gettysburg.

James G. Blaine, a prominent statesman from Maine who was a former speaker of the House, ran from what was called the “Half-Breed” wing of the GOP.  Fans knew him as “The Plumed Knight” because of his his incredible wit and legendary oratory.

Blaine’s many detractors, however, used this slogan to describe what they thought of the man:

“Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the state of Maine!”

Blaine was notoriously corrupt, but a political genius with a knack for being at the center of all the GOP’s major political and policy fights.

Running against Blaine from the “Stalwart” wing of the party was the Union hero from the Civil War, former President Ulysses S. Grant. Grant had already been President from 1869 until 1877 and was running for a third term.  He had an advantage over Blaine in that Blaine had done no military service at all, a critical requirement in the Republican Party, which had a deep, symbiotic relationship with veterans of the Union Army.  While he remained popular, Grant had difficulty escaping the shadow of corruption that had undermined his presidency. 

The last Republican that ran was John Sherman, a senator from Ohio nicknamed “the Ohio icicle” and brother of Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman.  Sherman was another Half-Breed who had also been a very able Treasury secretary.  But his signature issue of reforming the banking system was a throwback to the crash or “panic” of 1873.  The banking issues had fallen off the national agenda, as the economy was in recovery by the time of the 1880 election.

The key issue of contention was civil-service reform, an issue that was coming to a boil because of the incredible corruption that had wracked the period and included the presidential election of 1876, which was most likely stolen from Democrat Samuel Tilden by Republican supporters of Rutherford B. Hayes.  There was an increasing belief in the eyes of the public that elections were rigged and that both parties operated undemocratically.

Stalwarts preferred to continue working with the spoils system that was in place, which allowed federal workers to be selected based on loyalty to their respective parties.  Half-Breeds wanted to push harder for legislation that would “professionalize” the bureaucracy, with workers being selected based on a system of merit.  Reforming would improve the system overall but could cause major harm to the Republican Party in the short run.

At the convention, the vote was badly split between the three major candidates, with Blaine and Grant holding most of the delegates.  But the power brokers at the convention found a man who could be accepted by both wings of the GOP, James A. Garfield of Ohio.

Garfield was a veteran of the Civil War, a former professor, and a prominent member of Congress who was well-liked, knowledgeable and qualified. At the convention he was selected as the only man who could be acceptable to all parts of the fractured party, and for a time he united the GOP behind him.  A Stalwart, Chester A. Arthur, was chosen as his running mate and the Republicans had a winning ticket. Garfield would go on to beat Winfield Scott Hancock in one of the closest elections in American presidential history.

While the party was saved for the moment against completely fracturing, the division came to a head in the 1884 election, where an even more radical group of reformers , called the Mugwumps, left the GOP and voted for the Democrat, Grover Cleveland.

In today’s Republican Party there is a massive split between establishment and anti-establishment wings of the party.  Romney has become the favorite of the establishment and collected most of the endorsements from party leaders.

Grassroots conservatives and Tea Partiers, angry at the GOP for the high spending during the Bush years and the crony capitalism carried out by both parties, have jumped from candidate to candidate, hoping for an anti-Romney to emerge.  Currently, they see Gingrich
as the only man in the race who could fit that mold.

Gingrich tentatively holds onto the anti-establishment voters represented by the Tea Party, but those voters still have not embraced him because he has championed many unconservative ideas and has so much baggage.

Several potential candidates could decide to jump into the race at the last second and take the nomination.

There have been a few calls for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to enter the race, but he both lacks both the ability to unite the party and, with the last name “Bush,” has little chance of winning in the general election.

The most common call now is for Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who very capably delivered the response to President Obama’s State of the Union address.  Daniels has been one of the most capable governors in the country, and has a stunning list of conservative policy achievements. He paved the way for future Republican governors, such as Scott Walker of Wisconsin and John Kasich of Ohio, to push through reforms and deal with a short-term pushback in order to achieve bigger goals and popularity at a later time.

Daniels has the ability to bring aboard the establishment of the party, and many libertarians have also voiced that they would vote for him if Paul wasn’t an option. If Paul picks up enough delegates, then he could swing them to Daniels at the convention.

The main obstacle for Daniels would be that if he is selected without being tested in a primary, and at the last second, it could provoke a tremendous backlash from anti-establishment grassroots Republicans who already resent the influence of power brokers within the party.

Foisting a candidate who is an establishment favorite on voters at the last second could fracture the GOP irreparably, regardless of Daniel’s likability or qualifications.

The last option, one that would please the anti-establishment conservatives, but would scare the establishment, is a last-minute entry by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.  Given her celebrity and the total lack of confidence in the current field of candidates, she might be able to build almost instant momentum for a nomination at the convention.

With such a disappointing field of candidates and such a critical presidential election at stake, a brokered convention could cap off what has been a wild and unpredictable Republican primary.  It also gives conservatives one last hope for a Reganesque champion to step on the stage with a united party, ready to take the fight to Obama.  If Daniels or Palin, who have indicated in the past that they did not want to run, suddenly decide to enter the field, then there is a path to victory for them however unlikely their entry might be.