CLEVELAND — The opening day of the Republican National Convention provided as much evidence as anyone needs that a party in search of unity has but one real path to get there: attacking Hillary Clinton.
This is a party that is trying to unite behind Donald Trump here this week. It is slow going. Neither the Trump campaign nor the hard-liners who can’t reconcile easily to the idea that he will be their presidential nominee appear ready to forgive and forget the slights and insults and defeats of what has been a tumultuous year for the Republicans.
The internecine volleys between the opposing camps began early Monday, when Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who like his candidate is in a position to be magnanimous, went after Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a recalcitrant Trump rival who has been vocal about his unwillingness to climb aboard the winner’s bandwagon.
Kasich, the convention’s host governor, has a busy schedule here this week but has said repeatedly that he has no plans to step inside Quicken Loans Arena. Manafort, reflecting a candidate who resents those he defeated who still won’t endorse him, called Kasich “petulant” and an embarrassment to Ohio.
Manafort’s words brought a sharp response. Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges tweeted that Manafort “doesn’t know what he’s talking about” and has “a lot to learn” about Ohio politics. Kasich has been openly pessimistic about Trump’s chances of winning one of the most important swing states in the country.
By afternoon, the scene had shifted to the arena. At most conventions, the first hours of the afternoon are reserved for routine business: adopting the party platform and the rules that will govern the week, and for the Republicans the next four years. On Monday, it became one last opportunity for the anti-Trump elements to make mischief.
They have had a rough time in Cleveland. Poorly organized and without an alternative to the presumptive nominee, they had nonetheless hoped to gain some concessions during last week’s meeting of the convention rules committee.
Instead, in Manafort’s words, they were “crushed” at every turn, whether trying to obtain a vote of conscience for all the delegates or to alter some of the rules governing the nominating process. A combination of the Trump campaign and the national committee’s hierarchy easily beat back every effort.
The last play came Monday. Having been unable to win support for votes on minority reports to the rules, they sought a roll call vote for the adoption of the full package. They needed sufficient signatures from at least eight states. Organizers said they had submitted more states than required. Those in control of the convention applied pressure and suddenly the anti-Trump forces were told they no longer had enough states to qualify.
The rules were passed on a voice vote, as the yeas and nays echoed through the arena. When the ruling came from the podium that the rules had been adopted, a boisterous protest erupted, with shouts of “roll call, roll call” competing with shouts of “Trump! Trump! Trump!”
Then the house band began to play, a sign throughout the afternoon that the leaders of the party were buying time. Minutes later, there was a do-over, with exactly the same result: a package of rules pushed through by the party leaders and another explosion of dissatisfaction among delegates on the floor, including some who were not directly involved in the dispute.
Standing toward the back of the convention floor, Ed Tarpley, a delegate from Louisiana, watched with dissatisfaction. “That was a strong-arm move and that’s exactly what people were worried about with Trump,” he said. “I think it leaves a bad taste in the mouths of a lot of people, and that’s very unfortunate for our party.”
Sen. Mike Lee (Utah), one of the ringleaders, later tried to suggest that the efforts to force a roll call vote had nothing to do with Trump. Asked by CNN’s Dana Bash whether this was aimed at Trump, he said: “This is about the rules of the convention. It is about the future of the party. . . . This is not about Mr. Trump. This is about having a good, fair rules process.”
But Bash pressed him. Was this about writing rules that would help a conservative such as Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), whom Lee supported in the primaries, win a nomination in the future? “We’re always looking as conservatives to make sure that our rules are good.” Bash asked whether that was a yes. “Sure,” he said.
By evening, the messiness of the afternoon had been put aside in favor of a string of speakers who came with the same mission to excoriate Clinton and to argue that Trump could do as the night’s theme proclaimed: make America safe again.
But it was apparent from the rhetoric that the real goal was to try to bring together a fractured party. There was little from anyone other than Trump’s wife, Melania, that offered a soft portrait of the presumptive nominee and suggested a party united and looking to expand its coalition. Instead, the focus on Clinton was used as a way to bind the GOP’s base.
Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani offered testimony on behalf of Trump as a good and decent man maligned by the news media and the Clinton campaign, but the heart of his speech was an emotional charge against Islamist terrorists, an attack on President Obama and a warning that the United States would, under Trump, go after them with a vengeance. When he turned to Clinton, a former secretary of state, he accused her of a “dereliction of duty” that had left the Middle East in greater chaos. “Who would want Hillary Clinton to protect us? I wouldn’t,” he added.
The evening included an emotional speech from Pat Smith, the mother of Sean Smith, who was among those killed during an attack on a diplomatic consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in September 2012. “I blame Hillary personally for the death of my son,” she said. Pointing to a sign that said “Hillary for Prison,” she said, “She ought to be in stripes.”
Smith was not the only person to talk about Benghazi or to suggest that the former secretary of state should be in prison, which is something that is commonly heard at Trump rallies and other Republican events. Near the end of the evening, the remaining delegates chanted, “Lock her up! Lock her up!” They were joined by retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn from the podium.
Such rhetoric cheers the party’s base, and perhaps as important is a convenient way to put aside doubts about Trump and disagreement about the policies he has enunciated as a candidate. But the totality of the opening day of the convention sent a different message, that of a party still grappling with the meaning of Trump as its 2016 nominee.