Romney’s “RNC Power Grab”: What Really Happened

The Romney campaign and Republican party leaders have pulled off an audacious coup that could greatly reduce the influence of grassroots conservatives and libertarians within the party in 2016 and beyond. 

Yesterday, the Republican National Committee in Tampa adopted some changes to the rules of the national Republican Party that shift power from the state parties and the grassroots to the RNC and the GOP presidential nominee. Former Governor John Sununu of New Hampshire touted the new rules as providing “a strong governing framework” for the party over the next four years. But in fact the new rules should be very troubling and disappointing to conservative grassroots activists, because they move the national Republican Party away from being a party that is decentralized and bottom-up toward becoming one that is centralized and top-down.

The Romney rules effectively disenfranchise grassroots delegates, and will thus tend to weaken and splinter the party over time. They specifically represent a blow to the Tea Party and the Ron Paul insurgency — movements that have sprung up precisely because Washington insiders (of both parties) have abandoned the traditional bedrock principles of the Republican party, namely, economic freedom, fiscal common sense, and smaller, constitutionally limited government. Indeed, these vibrant new movements (which have attracted many young people, politically active citizens, and non-Republicans) represent what could fairly be characterized as “the Republican wing of the Republican party.” They want a real voice in the Grand Old Party. They’ve played by the rules. But the power brokers have now changed the rules, in order to shut them out. This unexpected hostility forces grassroots conservatives to reconsider their future within the GOP. 

Party sage and long-time RNC member (and conservative activist) Morton Blackwell led a last-minute effort to stop the changes — an effort FreedomWorks strongly supported, together with such prominent conservatives as Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and Phyllis Schlafly. RNC for Life jumped into the fray, concerned to protect the grassroots’ ability to have a voice in writing the Republican platform. Meanwhile, in the blogosphere, Michelle Malkin, Mark Levin, Rush Limbaugh, and others helped sound the alarm. 

But alas, the Romney camp and RNC insiders won the day, successfully imposing their will with the help of their control of the gavels, superior knowledge of the process, and perhaps some dirty tricks. The conservative “rebels” won the moral victory, however, taking their fight to the Rules Committee and the full Convention floor and arguably winning the voice vote there to stop the rules, only to be gaveled down by Speaker John Boehner [view video from 1:08 minutes]. 

Yesterday’s fight offers a sobering glimpse of what life will be like for conservatives in a Romney Administration. It proves once again that sometimes we have to beat the Republicans before we can beat the Democrats.

In Terms of Substance

Last Friday, August 24th, at a meeting the Convention Rules Committee, longtime GOP lawyer and Romney advisor Ben Ginsberg surprised Rules Committee members by proposing some rules changes that, on reflection, were almost certainly intended to consolidate control of the party in Washington and head off a conservative challenge to President Romney in 2016.

In the words of Morton Blackwell:

The changes he [Ginsberg] proposed shared a common theme: to concentrate and centralize more power at the top of the party and to shut off opportunities for power in the party to flow from the bottom up.

None of Mr. Ginsberg’s power grabs would in any way help us elect Mitt Romney and defeat President Barack Obama. . . . But his efforts predictably enraged conservative Republicans who treasure the protections long incorporated in our national party rules.  The record will show that during the Conventions Rules Committee meeting,  as a member of that committee from Virginia, I repeatedly warned Mr. Ginsberg that his power grabs would hurt the Romney campaign by outraging grassroots conservative and libertarian activists whom we want to support our candidates this year.

The proposed changes would alter the party’s rules, adopted in 2008, do two main things:

1. Amend existing Rule 12 to hand members of the Republican National Committee, for the first time, the power to change the party’s rules on the fly between national conventions. (National conventions only take place during presidential election years.) The RNC may not amend Rule 12, however; that privilege remains reserved to a national convention. Three-fourths of RNC members must approve a proposed rules change for it to take effect. 

Comment: This is unprecedented. It would give RNC members a new power to circumvent rules adopted by a national convention. And it actually bars the RNC from devolving this new power back to the states. One can easily see how campaigns would take advantage of this power to shape and control the presidential delegate-selection process, and how special interests would use it to shape the national platform to benefit themselves.

2. Amend existing Rule 15 to allow the presumptive presidential nominee to “disavow” duly elected delegates and force state parties to hold new elections to replace any delegate or alternate deemed unacceptable by the presumptive presidential nominee. (Note: The proposal also contained a provision altering the method of allocating delegates, in order to front-load and shorten the presidential primary calendar.)

Comment: One can imagine the influence this change would give a presumptive nominee over any delegate that doesn’t toe the line. He could, in effect, choose the people who are to choose him. It’s not hard to imagine the temptation a campaign would feel to use this power to intimidate delegates and to reward friends, supporters, and campaign contributors.

Unfortunately, the proposed change to Rule 12 passed. Thankfully, the proposed changes to Rule 15 were stopped. But a version of the “disavowal” provision did pass, touted by the insiders as a “compromise.” 

Under this “compromise,” a new Rule 16 was added to stop an alleged “faithless elector” problem — delegates who run claiming to support one candidate but then vote for another at the Convention. The new Rule 16 requires that a delegate who attempts to violate his binding pledge to a candidate under state law or state party rules shall be deemed to have resigned and the Secretary of the Convention must record the improper vote as it should have been cast based on state law or party rule. This compromise was supported by conservative stalwart James Bopp, as well as Ron Kaufman and Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi. Blackwell opposed the compromise because it retained the Rule 12 change. 

As long as the RNC can change the rules between conventions, the proposed changes to Rule 15 that we managed to stop could easily be revived at any time, without a vote at a National Convention. Since the RNC usually follows the lead of its Chairman, and the Chairman has powerful incentives to go along with an incumbent Republican President, it should be easy for Team Romney to change the party rules pretty much any time at their pleasure. This should trouble every Republican.

At a minimum, the effect of the new rules will be to empower insiders over the broad party electorate and to discourage grassroots activists from taking part in the process. The new rules will thus have a chilling effect on intra-party debate, including debate over the National Platform and, of course, on future rules changes. The “Inner Circle” has scored quite a coup. 

In Terms of Process

After Ginsberg’s proposed changes were presented in the RNC Rules Committee, Blackwell circulated a letter denouncing them and vowing to resist them by means of “minority reports,” which can be offered for votes on the Convention floor and, if adopted, would have the effect of defeating the proposed changes.

Over the next four days, we worked feverishly to kill the rule changes, sending out a national call to action and urging our activists to lobby the party chairs and Rules Committee members from their state about the issue. We lit up Facebook and Twitter (using the hashtag #RNCpowergrab) and burned up phone lines with hundreds of calls. We filled up people’s voicemail inboxes. We caused an avalanche of emails. We irritated the heck out of some people. But the pressure had a decisive effect. Negotiations began on the so-called “insiders’ compromise.” 

We knew we were fighting an uphill battle. Blackwell laid the groundwork for a floor fight by obtaining more than the requisite number of signers on each of the two minority reports. (Twenty-eight signatures are required.) 

As the Rules Committee meeting neared, Team Romney went into high gear, working hard to peel signers off the minority reports. 

When the committee finally met, Blackwell was absent, and we have conflicting reports about whether he still had the requisite number of co-signers. One report suggests he did, but that the committee basically disregarded the minority reports because he was not there to defend them. 

Why was Blackwell absent? This was out of character for the veteran, battle-scarred activist. Did the insiders pull a Nixonian trick to make sure the leader of the opposition wasn’t present during the crucial meeting? Here’s how CNN explained his absence:

… [S]ome [rules] committee members suggested meddling was at play. A bus full of Virginia delegates arrived at the committee meeting — after it had adjourned.

“The bus that was supposed to pick up the Virginia delegation arrived an hour later than it was supposed to,” explained Virginia delegate Morton Blackwell, a prime opponent of Rule 16 [a.k.a. the insiders’ compromise on delegate “disavowal”].

Blackwell continued: “And then when we went downtown, we went around the same series of blocks repeatedly -– twice. And then the bus took out away from downtown, went about a mile and a half, and then did a u-turn and came back. And did another circuit, of the same place where we had been before.” 

And at that point, the Virginia delegates demanded, “‘Stop the bus. And we’re going to walk.’ And we did.”

Mike Rothfeld, a Virginia delegate also on the bus, went further. 

“They pushed us around for 45 minutes and then we missed the meeting,” Rothfeld said. “We were in the security perimeter, they pushed us out of it three separate times. They moved us around until the meeting was adjourned.”

[Colorado delegate Florence] Sebern claimed the snafu was “deliberate.”

No one, however, has offered any proof that the delay was intentional. And Morton Blackwell has said, “I never for a minute believed our bus had been deliberately delayed.  One should not attribute to conspiracy what can adequately be explained by incompetence.” 

Fair enough. But there are a number of other examples of possible dirty tricks that deserve to be recorded for posterity: 

1. Florida activist Laura Noble informed us that both of Florida’s Rules Committee members, Peter Feaman and Kathleen King, were removed from the Rules Committee and replaced with Romney-appointed delegates. 

2. Some Rules Committee members were physically barred from entering the room, despite having proper credentials.

3. Some delegates were told that Blackwell was trying to use the situation as an excuse to reopen a settled debate that he had lost four years ago regarding Rule 12. Not true.

4. Some delegates were told Romney personally knew nothing of the matter and it was just his overly aggressive lawyers acting beyond their authority and there was nothing to worry about, he would put a stop to it once he found out what was happening. This seems highly implausible, given the final outcome.

5. Some delegates seem to have believed that the rules fight was merely a side-fight in the larger and (to their minds, more urgent) battle being waged between the Mitt Romney and Ron Paul camps over who would represent certain states on the convention floor. This mistaken assumption may have discouraged some Rules Committee members from supporting the minority reports. If so, it’s tragic, because, while they did coincide and reinforce each other, the two fights were distinct. 

Governor Sununu chaired the meeting. Governor Barbour strongly urged “unity” and the need for everyone to set aside “differences” to “defeat Barack Obama.” 

The rules package, containing the insider’s compromise, passed by a decisive vote of 78 to 14. Unfortunately, the Rule 12 change (permitting the RNC to change the rules between conventions) remained in the package, unaltered. Which, of course, means that other rules changes can be imposed later, without a vote — including the Rule 15 change (giving the presumptive nominee the ability to hire and fire delegates based on their perceived loyalty).

The package then went immediately to the full Convention for approval. On the convention floor, Governor Sununu offered it as a “strong governing framework” for the party over the next four years, and with no debate or even mention of the controversy over Rule 12, Speaker Boehner then called for the ayes and noes. The crowd roared loudly, on both sides of the question. Despite the “noes” being (in this hearer’s estimate) louder than the “ayes,” Boehner hastily gaveled the matter closed, declaring: “In the opinion of the Chair, the ‘ayes’ have it, and the resolution is adopted.”

Apparently, someone at RNC was able to predict the future, because this sentence had been helpfully written out for him in advance, and included in his teleprompter script:

Boehner’s scripted announcement provoked cries from the crowd of “No!”, “Boo!”, “Roll call!” and “Division of the house!” [view video starting at 1:08 minutes]. But the microphones had been turned off. Boehner pretended not to hear.

This incident was unprecedented, according to Morton Blackwell:

I was the youngest elected Goldwater delegate at the 1964 national convention.  I have attended every national convention since, and I’ve represented Virginia on the RNC since 1988.  Nothing like this has happened before in living memory at a Republican National Convention.

The Fix Was In

The will of the delegates did not matter. The “Inner Circle” had decided. 

Had we been able to force a roll-call vote, it would have delayed the day’s proceedings by several hours, which would have created an embarrassing logistical foul-up for Team Romney on the Convention’s first night. With the prime-time coverage and big evening speeches scheduled to begin fairly soon, our leverage would have been significant. Team Romney would have been forced to commence immediate negotiations right there on the convention floor, desperate to get their show back on track.  But having foreseen the possibility of dissent, they planned to be, at the critical moment, conveniently deaf.

Soon after the disappointing outcome, FreedomWorks released the following statement from Matt Kibbe:

I believe that the Republican party has made a huge mistake by effectively disenfranchising grassroots activists who want to be a part of the party process. If the party sincerely wants the support of citizens, shutting them out of the process is not the way to do it. Sooner rather than later the Republican establishment needs to come to terms with the decentralized nature of grassroots organization circa 2012. The terms of engagement can no longer be dictated from the top-down.

Morton Blackwell agreed, writing:

What happened regarding the party rules in Tampa was a totally unnecessary but largely successful attempt to concentrate and centralize more power at the top of the party and restrict or shut off opportunities for power in the party to flow from the bottom up. …

It’s little short of tragic that some of his [Romney’s] operatives blundered by setting up an entirely unnecessary, major controversy with grassroots Republicans at our national convention.

The new rules strongly suggest the insiders don’t think they need the grassroots to win in 2012 — an astounding assumption, given the critical role grassroots voters played in the historic 2010 wave election.

Despite this setback, we’re proud to have come so close to victory on such short notice and while operating under such severe disadvantages, relative to the insiders. This episode confirms just how powerful grassroots action can be in today’s world — and we hope the party insiders are taking note of this fact. 

We expect Democrats to be top-down and high-handed — centralization of power is their governing principle, after all. But coming from Republicans, high-handedness is deeply disappointing. Republican rhetoric has always emphasized decentralization and local control — making policy from the bottom up. And until yesterday, the GOP was in fact a mostly bottom-up party. No longer.

This isn’t merely “inside baseball.” If the new RNC rules had been in place forty years ago, the establishment might have been able to shut down the Reagan insurgency in 1976. Reagan might not have been able to secure the nomination in 1980. 

Perhaps we should not be surprised by this turn of events? Perhaps the centralization of power in the political parties is simply a logical development in the present era — a “progressive” era, when all institutions, under the pressure of an unlimited, centralized government, tend over time to reflect and become servants of that government?

Perhaps. But whenever an “Inner Circle” exploits its constituents’ trust to entrench itself in power, we believe the appropriate recourse is always the same: expose the treachery and keep fighting. Find ways to break down the castle walls. Drive the despots out. 

This develoment confirms our thesis that the reclaiming of Washington, D.C., by the American people requires siege warfare — or, in the corporate parlance of our time, a “hostile takeover.” The failed, entrenched “managers” of our nation — including the powerful insiders who run the political parties — do not want to change and will not let themselves be replaced without a fight.

So be it. This aggression will not stand.

The Upshot

What does the RNC power grab mean for the future? 

1) Beginning today, the GOP will be much less representative of state parties and voters — and much more representative of whichever interests are smart and powerful enough to dominate the RNC. 

2) The conservative grassroots will now have to add “Monitoring the RNC” to their “eternal vigilance” list.

What should our next steps be?

1) Between now and November 6th, our main focus should be the elections. We must fire Barack Obama and elect a new wave of true fiscal and constitutional conservatives to the U.S. Senate to reinforce allies like Jim DeMint, Rand Paul, and Mike Lee.

2) But starting today, we must also work to ensure the RNC doesn’t actually use its new power to change the rules on the fly. 

3) In four years, we must amend the rules at the national convention to decentralize power and restore the status quo ante.

Let’s take the Republican party out of the hands of insiders and centralizers, and make it a bottom-up party again. That means doing the hard work of getting elected to local and state committees, adopting resolutions, buttonholing RNC members, etc.

All that said, let’s face it. This is a slap in the face to the countless Americans who are trying to effect change from the bottom up. We must decide whether and to what extent we want to remain engaged in a Republican Party whose establishment clearly does not want our input. My own personal opinion is we should exhaust all our options to reverse the power grab before we even think of “walking out.”

The RNC power grab has succeeded, for now. We’ll be back.

Welcome to the “Hostile Takeover.”

Dean Clancy is FreedomWorks’ Legislative Counsel and Vice President, Health Care Policy


FreedomWorks Responds to RNC Vote on Reversing Power Grab (2013-04-12)

The Fight Continues Against the RNC Power Grab (2013-04-11)

Florence Sebern: Rules Changes with Comparison (2012-09-07)

Morton Blackwell: My views on the 2012 GOP rules controversy (2012-09-02)

Michael Duncan: The RNC Planned to Silence Grassroots Opposition (2012-08-31)

Michelle Malkin: RNC power grab: the aftermath (2012-08-29)

FL: Critics say Boehner used RNC rules committee to quash internal dissent (2012-08-29)

Timothy P. Carney: GOP leaders trample on the grassroots in Tampa (2012-08-29)

Dean Clancy: Romney’s “RNC Power Grab”: What Really Happened (2012-08-29)

Delegate: RNC Rule Change Would Have Silenced Reagan in ’76 (2012-08-28)

Michael Duncan: Romney Camp Removing Rules Committee Members (2012-08-28)

2012 Platform of the Republican Party (2012-08-28)

Washington Times: GOP officials accuse Romney of ‘power grab’ (2012-08-26)

BuzzFeed: Grassroots Backlash Against Romney Campaign’s Rules Changes (2012-08-24)



[See links below for documents related to this issue.]