Dana Milbank’s don’t-miss guide to the 2012 Republican and Democratic national conventions


(Illustration Andy Friedman)
August 12, 2012

Let’s be honest. There hasn’t been an interesting national political convention since 1976.

But at a minimum, this year’s conventions will give us guns, strippers, a sexual harassment scandal and a traffic apocalypse. That’s not bad.

There will be plenty to discover when the Republicans go to Tampa on Aug. 27 and the Democrats to Charlotte on Sept. 3 beyond the obvious conclusion: that both parties picked really awful places to visit during the summer. Whether you’re attending the conventions or — lucky you — following them from afar, here’s what to watch for. This, therefore, is your indispensable guide to the 2012 conventions.

***

TAMPA
Welcome to the Wild West

Delegates will want to pack a few essentials for the GOP convention in this bayside town: sunscreen, a bathing suit and a sidearm. This promises to be the Wild West of political conventions: Participants are invited to pack heat.

Florida, like many Southern states, has a generous concealed-carry law, which means that if you look at the people on your right and your left, chances are they will be armed. For this reason, you might not want to look at the people on your right and your left, lest they think you are looking at them funny.

The Tampa City Council voted to ask Gov. Rick Scott to issue an executive order banning guns within the convention perimeter. But Scott, a Republican who was, er, gunning for a speaking role at the convention, shot down the idea. The only type of gun that will be banned from the perimeter is the dreaded Super Soaker — because that’s the only type of gun the city council was allowed to ban.

The council did take the precaution of banning hatchets; there’s always a lot of backstabbing at conventions, and that’s one category of weapons the NRA isn’t much worried about protecting.

***

Where’s the party?

The presence of so many guns at the convention might worry the Secret Service. Fortunately for them, Tampa has something that will keep the agents otherwise occupied: strip clubs. The area has 50, making flesh one of the most visible industries.

Readers will recall that Secret Service agents demonstrated their affection for this trade during the president’s recent visit to Colombia. Republicans have also demonstrated interest. Then-Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele got into trouble a couple of years ago when RNC officials attempted to expense a $2,000 bill from Voyeur West Hollywood, a bondage-themed club where the performers simulate sex acts while suspended from nets.

It’s not clear whether the Floridians are this advanced. But many of the Tampa strip clubs are said to be upgrading equipment, hiring dancers and creating, ahem, “private nooks.” One place, Thee Dollhouse, reportedly spent $1 million to renovate and is bringing in a Sarah Palin impersonator. This could be the biggest event for the clubs since the 2009 Super Bowl, when some stayed open 24 hours.

***

A Paul fest (or three)

The gadfly congressman Ron Paul, perennial presidential candidate and darling of the tea party, retires after this year. That makes Tampa a last hurrah, of sorts, for this Texas obstetrician-libertarian who loves gold and hates the Fed.

There are, depending on how you count it, three separate events commemorating the good doctor on the eve of the convention.

The main one is a three-day Paul Festival next weekend hosted by the pro-Paul group Liberty Unleashed. It will have bands, performers, children’s activities and speakers that amount to a “Who’s Who of the Ron Paul Revolution.” There will be Ron Paul chocolate bars and Ron Paul T-shirts. The only thing that won’t be at the Paul Festival, in fact, is ... Ron Paul.

The congressman e-mailed supporters that he will not speak at the event, instead appearing at his own rally that rivals Paul Festival. “This event on Sunday, August 26th, at the University of South Florida’s Sun Dome, will be the ONLY pre-Convention event at which I’ll be speaking, so I hope to see you’ll be able to make it,” Paul wrote.

Unwilling to give up, the Paul Festival people announced they would have a “Ronvoy” and transport their participants to the other Paul event. Neither event should be confused with a third pro-Paul event in Tampa that weekend, the Freedom Festival hosted by a group called Liberty Avengers. Its goal, creating “a more unified liberty movement,” would seem at odds with the splintering of Paul supporters into three factions.

If the competing Paul fests don’t distract from what happens on the convention floor, Paul delegates could nominate their man for vice president. They are the majority in Iowa, Minnesota and Maine, and they could force a roll-call vote between Paul and the candidate Mitt Romney picks. The risk of this goes up significantly if Paul doesn’t get a plum speaking slot at the convention.

Think Paul’s supporters won’t really make a mess of GOP unity at the convention? Consider that 132 Paul delegates filed a federal lawsuit charging the RNC with trying to restrict their votes on the convention floor. The RNC called the suit “frivolous,” which it is — but frivolity is what conventions are all about.

***

Please, Mother Nature ...

The GOP’s biggest worry is not that Ron Paul’s supporters will stir up a whirlwind on the convention floor, but that Mother Nature will stir up something bigger. The convention is scheduled right in the middle of hurricane season. Katrina hit Florida on Aug. 25, 2005, and Andrew arrived on Aug. 24, 1992.

There’s only a one-in-25 chance that Tampa will be hit by a hurricane in any given year, so the chance of one happening that week is quite small — but still terrifying to organizers. State workers have been planning for the possibility of a Category 3 storm — and the mass evacuations that would be required with 50,000 visitors in town.
If that happens, the convention is a washout: There isn’t enough time before the election to have a rain date. Besides, Pat Robertson will say God sent the hurricane to punish Republicans.

***

The hotheads

At any party, there is the risk that a guest will embarrass the host. At the Republican convention, there is a much greater risk that the host will embarrass the guests. In Tampa, the hosts have a whole host of troubles.

They begin with Rick Scott, the Republican governor. Only 40 percent of Floridians have a favorable view of the man. And convention organizers didn’t know quite what to do with his insistence that he have a speaking role.

Asked about it, RNC Chairman Reince Preibus hemmed and hawed.
“I mean, he’s the hometown governor,” Priebus said, according to the Tampa Bay Times. “I’m sure he’s got, I’m sure he’s got plenty, uh, you know, I’m sure there’s a welcome, you know, there’s a lot of protocol there, too, so I don’t want to get into the details because I don’t know what the answer to that is yet.”

At press time, the Republicans had resigned themselves to giving Scott a platform but weren’t making any promises on time of day.

Then there’s the awkward matter of the former Florida Republican Party chairman, Jim Greer, who goes on trial in November on felony charges related to stealing $100,000 from the party. Greer plans to defend himself by airing the state party’s dirty laundry. The judge granted Greer access to its records, making it likely that embarrassing revelations will remain in headlines.

Greer’s wife, Lisa, has vowed that the trial “will serve as a day of reckoning for those who chose to protect their own corrupt political careers.” She has said her husband’s defense will hold accountable “current and former elected officials, political consultants and lobbyists who orchestrated a criminal case against him” to cover up “for their own actions.”

Perhaps it’s for the best that the convention organizers are keeping the Florida delegation far from the action: The host state’s reps are being housed in Palm Harbor, 30 miles away. Suspicion is that the RNC is punishing the state party for moving up its primary to January, in violation of party rules. Florida gets only half its usual number of about 100 delegates.

***

Hide the politicians

Republicans solved one of their biggest problems in July when George W. Bush said he wouldn’t attend the convention. Organizers had been dreading the prospect of trying to hide W; former presidents typically get prominent roles, but Bush remains deeply unpopular and a reminder to the country of the economic collapse and the Iraq war that occurred on his watch. The other living former Republican president, who happens to be W’s father, will also avoid Tampa, though for health reasons.

The party will have less luck hiding Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. They have a lot of supporters among the delegates, and both men, having performed well in the primaries, pretty much must be given a speaking slot. If organizers have their way, those slots will be around 10 a.m., as far from prime time as possible. Republicans don’t want to remind Americans about the factions in the party and the lingering distrust of Romney.

Of the two, Gingrich is the biggest danger because of the possibility he will give a grudging or angry speech, the way Pat Buchanan did in 1992, reopening rifts in the party and weakening it for the fall election. And Gingrich often speaks whatever is on his mind — an alarming prospect for those who like to script conventions.

Will Gingrich reprise his accusation that the Republican nominee is a liberal and a liar?

And what to do with Donald Trump, the nation’s most prominent birther? The self-aggrandizing billionaire will be in the area on the eve of the convention to receive the — no joke — “statesman of the year” award from the Republican Party of Sarasota County. It stands to reason that Trump will remain in town for the convention, and it is a virtual certainty that he will find ways to make the convention all about him.

A more pleasant prospect for Republicans is the possibility they will recruit another apostate Democrat for a prime-time slot. Zell Miller played the role for Bush in 2004, and Joe Lieberman did for John McCain in 2008. The early talk this year has been about Artur Davis, a moderate African American former congressman from Alabama who has quit the Democratic Party after losing a gubernatorial primary race. The ambitious Davis, who seconded the nomination of Barack Obama at the 2008 Democratic convention, has moved to Virginia, where he may try a second career as a Republican politician.

***

Hey, fat cats ...

The Republicans’ big tent is quite an exclusive lean-to this year. There are no tickets for sale, and guaranteed entrance to the hall is limited to delegates, party officials and a limited number of media. But fear not, fat cats: There are many ways to buy your way into peripheral events.

Among the scores of lunches, dinners, golf outings and cocktail parties arranged by the party, lobbyists, party donors and corporate sponsors is a collection of concerts featuring Lynyrd Skynyrd, Kid Rock, Trace Adkins, Ronnie Dunn and others. According to Politico, sponsors — opportunities start at just $10,000! Cheap! — include the National Energy Institute, Amway and Southern Co. As with all such conventions, the amount of access you get to lawmakers depends on how much you give.

Can’t afford to buy your way in? Turn on C-SPAN and see if the platform committee does something interesting. Usually, policy differences are papered over, and the platform is just a collection of boilerplate. But this year could be different: The chairman of the platform committee is Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia, the man who made transvaginal ultrasound a part of the national dialogue.

***

CHARLOTTE
Going for broke?

“I’m not a member of any organized political party,” said humorist Will Rogers. “I’m a Democrat.”

In 2012, the Democrats seem determined to give new meaning to that quip by Rogers, whose statue stands in the Capitol just outside the House chamber. In the run-up to the convention in Charlotte, the effort has been chaotic: overly ambitious and underfunded.

It seemed like a good idea at the time: Democrats said they would refuse corporate contributions to the convention. This sounded noble, but was financially disastrous: Corporate cash is the lifeblood of the modern political convention. Corporations had contributed more than half the cost of the 2008 Democratic convention, in Denver. Without it, Democrats couldn’t meet even scaled-back goals for Charlotte.

In early summer, Bloomberg News reported that the Charlotte host committee had raised less than $10 million, barely a quarter of the $37 million goal. Convention officials quarreled with that report, saying they were “right on track.” But they did not say what track they were on.

The first sign of trouble came in January, when Democrats shortened the convention from the usual four days to three. This was ostensibly to make room for CarolinaFest, a celebration of the South, at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, 20 miles out of town. But in late June, organizers canceled the speedway event. They claimed this was because of the logistical difficulty of getting so many people out to the speedway — but there was no dispelling the impression that the Democrats were just flat broke.

Instead of a huge NASCAR event, Democrats would instead observe the Labor Day CarolinaFest by having “family-oriented activities” in Charlotte’s Uptown neighborhood.

Stephen Colbert suggested Democrats use a tip jar with the label “Change we can believe in.” Amazingly, the convention’s executive director, Dan Murrey, followed Colbert’s advice and e-mailed Democrats to “go ahead — visit CharlotteIn2012.com and drop a few dollars in the tip jar. When you do, you’ll automatically be entered to win airfare and accommodations for the week of the convention this September in Charlotte.”

The Democrats also created a second entity, New American City, that could accept corporate contributions. Despite the supposed ban on corporate cash, corporate funds will now pay for parties.

***

Traffic apocalypse ahead

Charlotte may be the smallest metropolitan area to host a national political convention since the Democrats went to Atlantic City — in 1964. And that is creating some interesting logistical situations.

If you’re a Democratic high-roller, you probably won’t notice. If you’ve raised $1 million or more for the party, you’ll probably get a room at the posh Ritz-Carlton or similar lodging not far from the convention site. And, of course, you can always rent a home nearby; enterprising residents are offering theirs for as much as $40,000 for the week.

But for most of the 50,000 participants, and for the innocent bystanders of Charlotte, it could be a traffic apocalypse. And if you are truly at the bottom of the food chain — say, a reporter for The Washington Post — you’ll get a room at the Hampton Inn Concord/Kannapolis, 25 miles away. Depending on traffic, the drive could take, oh, about three days. But it could be worse: New York Times reporters were assigned to a hotel in the next state.

The far-flung housing is bad news for the 15,000 journalists from around the world who will be covering the convention (a similar number will be in Tampa). For journalists, conventions are like summer camp: Each media outlet gets its own work space — often a tent — near the convention site, and catered food is brought in throughout the day. After a fun-filled day at the convention (there’s rarely actual news to cover), the journalists go off in search of a watering hole. But instead of stumbling back to the hotel room, this time they’ll make the long — and uncharacteristically sober — drive to Charlotte’s exurbs.

The traffic worries contributed to the Democrats’ decision to cancel their event at the raceway. But the volume could still overwhelm Charlotte’s infrastructure. The city will temporarily relocate its main bus station, which was just across from the convention site. Security needs will close some streets and part of the light-rail line, and possibly some stations.

For Washingtonians, it will feel like home.

***

Skipping out on the fun

Perhaps it’s just as well that the Democratic convention has been shortened: There will be less time to notice all the Democratic officeholders who aren’t there.

With President Obama polling poorly, dragged down by the limping economy, many Democrats, particularly those in Republican states, decided they had more urgent matters to attend to than flying to Charlotte.

Sen. Jon Tester of Montana and Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, both in difficult reelection battles, let it be known that they wouldn’t attend. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who isn’t even promising to support Obama, won’t be in Charlotte either. A large number of House members — among them Mark Critz (Pa.), William Owens and Kathleen Hochul (N.Y.), Jim Matheson (Utah) and John Barrow (Georgia) — have sent their regrets.

Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, put the best possible face on the truancy, claiming that the absences have nothing to do with Obama’s unpopularity. “If they want to win an election, they need to be in their districts,” he said.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi followed that with a statement actually instructing Democrats to skip the convention. “I’m not encouraging anyone to go to the convention, having nothing to do with anything except I think they should stay home, campaign in their districts, use their financial and political resources to help them win their election,” Pelosi told Politico.

And besides: With the speedway event canceled, why bother?

***

Local dramas

If the Florida Republican Party is poised to embarrass national Republicans in Tampa, the North Carolina Democratic Party is in an excellent position to do the same to national Democrats in Charlotte.

We begin with the state’s Democratic governor, Bev Perdue, who is regarded favorably by only about three in 10 North Carolinians. So overwhelmingly unpopular is she that she abandoned plans to seek reelection in November. Two other North Carolina Democrats, Reps. Heath Shuler and Brad Miller, also announced their retirements. And has anybody forgotten the recent trial of John Edwards, for much of the decade the Tar Heel Democrats’ favorite son? Surely nobody has invited him to the convention, but he lives only a couple of hours away, and impulse control is not one of his strengths.

The North Carolina party leadership itself is in disarray. The executive director, Jay Parmley, resigned after he was accused by a young male staffer of showing him a picture of male genitals and caressing his leg. But the party chairman, David Parker, remained on the job despite pressure from Washington for a house cleaning.

***

Union action

It wouldn’t be a Democratic convention if there weren’t some element of friendly fire, some internecine feuding that makes little sense. In 2012, the unions are raising the requisite ruckus, because the Democrats dared to hold their convention in a right-to-work state.

Various unions said they wouldn’t contribute funds to this convention, and a dozen unions informed the Democratic National Committee that they will skip the convention entirely. Allegedly, there isn’t a single union hotel in the town, so it would pretty much have to be a camping trip for union members, anyway.

The building trades division of the AFL-CIO informed the DNC that it would skip the convention, complaining that the party selected the “state with the lowest unionization rate in the country.”

If the union members are really steamed, they can join protesters who plan to make a scene just as delegates arrive. The Coalition to March on Wall Street South has received a permit and is planning a “series of actions.”

It’s not entirely clear what the protesters are protesting, but the movement seems to be an all-purpose liberal complaint. The group’s “Charlotte Principles” say it is opposed to oppression and in favor of social, economic and environmental justice. The demonstrators plan to “express our many grievances with the two-party system, the banks and corporations.” But fear not: This is no Chicago ’68. It’s a “safe, legally permitted, family friendly” protest, organizers claim.

It is, in other words, likely to be dreadfully boring.

***

Storm clouds brewing

In 2008, Barack Obama rolled the dice and got lucky: His acceptance speech at the open-air Invesco Field in Denver was a meteorological risk, but the weather cooperated, and tens of thousands of Democrats went home happy after the nominee’s speech, on a stage resembling a Greek temple.

This time, Obama is raising the stakes: His acceptance speech will be at Bank of America Stadium, which can accommodate 74,000 people. But Charlotte is not Denver. In Charlotte at that time of year, average high temperatures are in the mid-80s, thunderstorms roll in every few evenings — and Bank of America Stadium does not have a roof.

Will the weather gods who smiled on Obama’s Greek temple smile again on his humbler platform in Charlotte?

***

Heeeeeeeere’s ... Hillary?

There’s little chance for drama on the floor of the Democratic convention, because President Obama had no serious primary challenge and because he already has chosen his running mate. Or has he?

Through much of the president’s term, a rumor has surfaced repeatedly that Obama would drop Vice President Biden and make Hillary Clinton his running mate. There has been no indication whatsoever that such a thing might actually occur, but this does little to quell the speculation.

So let’s revive that rumor again:

Clinton won’t attend the convention because, the State Department says, of her nonpartisan duties as secretary of state. But maybe that’s just a ruse, to keep her out of view until she is introduced in Charlotte as ... the next vice president of the United States! With Obama awarding Bill Clinton the top speaking role Wednesday night, bumping Biden from the VP’s usual spot, there’s already a time slot available for the Hillary surprise!

Remember: You heard it here first.

Dana Milbank is a political columnist for The Post. To comment on this story, send e-mail to wpmagazine@washpost.com.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000.
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