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May 22nd, 2017

Insight

Conflicted ahead of Cleveland: The calls for unity behind Trump-as-nominee are beginning to be heard

Dan Balz

By Dan Balz The Washington Post

Published April 25, 2016

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Conflicted ahead of Cleveland: The calls for unity behind Trump-as-nominee are beginning to be heard

The attempted rapprochement now underway between the presidential campaign of Donald Trump and the leadership of the Republican Party is as predictable as it is fraught with risk for both sides - a dance between partners who will never be comfortable with each other.

For Trump, the bridge-building represents the challenge of trying to reassure nervous Republican leaders that he can avoid the erratic behavior and divisive rhetoric that have given him the highest negatives of any candidate in the 2016 race while reassuring his angry base that he is not selling out to a party establishment that many of them loathe.

For state and national Republican leaders, the outreach highlights the conflict between the revulsion many of them have felt toward a candidate who has trampled on core GOP values and inflamed much of the electorate and a grudging acceptance that it is increasingly likely the controversial New York billionaire will be leading them into a fall campaign against Hillary Clinton.

All of this was on display at the resort hotel along the beaches in Hollywood, Fla., where the Republican National Committee met last week. The meeting was a last full gathering of the party leadership before GOP delegates arrive in Cleveland in mid-July for what could be a chaotic and potentially party-splitting convention.

For these few days, everyone was on good behavior. Cleveland could be another story. What took place in Hollywood was a program carefully planned to avoid any clashes on rules and procedures and to send signals of reassurance that all is under control.

Among the few issues up for debate was the question of whether the national convention should be governed, as it long has been, by the rules of the House, which more easily restrict challenges, or be changed to Robert's Rules of Order, which make it easier for people to snarl the proceedings.

The RNC's Rules Committee, wired in advance by party leaders, stuck to the status quo with a minimum of fuss. This will be revisited in Cleveland when the convention rules committee meets and when the opposing camps have a greater sense of which approach would benefit them more. There it could be more difficult for party leaders to control the debate or the outcome.

In Florida, all was peace and harmony. From RNC Chairman Reince Priebus on down, the message emanating from the public sessions was all about fairness, transparency and even-handedness in Cleveland, amid reminders that the world will be watching every session, every objection and every demonstration. As Priebus said repeatedly, whatever happens there will be the decision of the delegates, not a handful of RNC officials.

Priebus also led a series of harsh attacks on Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, in an effort to leapfrog over the awkward question of just who will or should be the nominee and how that will be decided. The specter of Clinton as president remains the single unifying force in a party that remains badly divided.

Party leaders are necessarily preparing for a contested convention that could include multiple ballots and much discord before a nominee is chosen. Despite his handsome victory in New York last week and the prospect of another good day in the five contests on Tuesday, Trump is still not guaranteed the 1,237 delegates needed to secure the nomination.

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, despite his distant, third-place showing in the New York primary, is maneuvering to deny Trump a first-ballot victory, hoping Trump's high watermark will be the number of delegates he gets in that opening round. Cruz then intends to win the nomination on a second or third ballot.

Meanwhile, Ohio Gov. John Kasich clings to the hope that, even if he arrives in Cleveland having won only his home state and trailing by a huge number in the delegate count, practical-minded delegates will turn to him as the lone candidate among the three finalists who can defeat Clinton in November and save the party from a historic defeat.

Cruz and Kasich showed up in Florida to speak to RNC officials and their advisers quietly worked the membership with private pleadings. But like everything else about American politics this year, the RNC meeting was all about Trump: What his nomination would mean for the party's majorities in the Senate and House, what it would mean for party fundraising and what it could mean for the future of the party after November.

Trump talk dominated corridor conversations and private meetings as some party officials began to resign themselves to the prospect that, unless something changes, they will be allied with the New York billionaire at least through the November election.

Trump has publicly trashed the party establishment throughout the campaign. His relationships with state party leaders are mostly nonexistent. His potential nomination is cause for considerable angst.

So when Paul Manafort, who has quickly emerged as first among equals among Trump's advisers, briefed party leaders about how the campaign team sees the road ahead, the hot and stuffy room was packed to overflowing.

Manafort, who knows the inside game of politics, told RNC members what they wanted to hear: that Trump is in the process of evolving as a candidate, from firebrand, anti-establishment rebel to responsible presumptive nominee. He has been playing a role, Manafort said, and the role necessarily is now changing.

Someone in the room recorded the remarks and the audio quickly found its way into the hands of various news organizations. By Friday, the audio was playing on national television and all manner of websites. Imagine what will happen in Cleveland with every private meeting of a hundred people.

Manafort's comments sparked fresh controversy about whether Trump has been play-acting and also the prospect that a New Trump, like the New Nixon, is emerging, as if the reality TV star could or would instantly change personas without paying a political price. His past statements stand no matter what.

In reality, what Manafort said was both easy and obvious, little more than an opening bid on the part of the Trump campaign to tamp down hostility ahead of Cleveland and prepare for at least a partial takeover of the convention program.

Trump is likely to continue oscillating between the quieter demeanor he displayed in his victory speech on the night of the New York primary (or that he will show this week when he delivers a foreign policy address in Washington) and the angry, intemperate candidate who shows up a rallies across the country.

That's the bargain Republican leaders could be forced to strike in Cleveland, investing their party's hopes in a standard-bearer with no historical ties or obligations to the institution he would be leading. The calls for unity behind Trump-as-nominee are beginning to be heard, but no set of talking points can mask the unease that remains across the Republican Party as the march to Cleveland continues.

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