The Coming Cleveland Chaos

The Republican Party faces a civil war on its convention floor in Cleveland. Republican Party rules will have played a significant role in this debacle. Two systemic flaws that now threaten to rupture or possibly destroy the Republican Party -- "disloyal delegates" and the probability of nominating an unelectable candidate who threatens the existence of the party -- have been successfully addressed by the Democratic Party over three decades of delegate selection reform.

The "disloyal delegate" phenomenon -- delegates forced by state law to vote for one candidate while they support another -- is denounced by Donald Trump as corrupt. This is impossible in the Democratic Party because Democrats long ago adopted "Candidate Right of Approval" (CRA) which insures that delegates pledged to a Presidential candidate are loyal to, and have been approved by that candidate. There will be no Trojan Horses on the floor in Philadelphia.

The Republican establishment's Stop Trump movement is rationalized by the belief that the Party must do everything in its power to avoid a Cleveland catastrophe that will cost the GOP the Presidency, the Senate and possibly even the House. Democrats addressed that issue in 1982 by creating a class of unpledged delegates comprising elected and party officials -- "ex officio delegates" -- whose constituency was not a presidential candidate, but the party itself. In Philadelphia, the Democrats will convene a convention where 85% of the delegates are agents of candidates, and the remaining 15% of the delegates are agents of the party. If the Democrats are ever on the edge of going off the electoral cliff, we have built into our convention rules some flexibility and maneuverability for our salvation.

The ongoing debate about delegate selection and the function of national conventions is embedded in centuries old debate over models of political representation. Simply put, the question in democratic theory is whether those elected by the people should follow the instructions of the people or should use their own best judgment and vote their consciences. The Democratic and Republican parties have answered this question very differently and that difference is dramatically playing out in the their respective delegate selection processes heading to the summer national conventions.

The Republican Party process is based on Edmund Burke's 19th century "trustee" representation model. According to Burke -- and apparently to those who constructed the Republican delegate system -- the people put their trust and confidence in the hands of those they elect, and once elected, these trustees exercise their own judgment in making decisions for the benefit of those who elected them.

The trustee model is at the heart of the strategy of the Republican establishment's Stop Trump movement. Most Republican delegates are legally bound by their respective state primary statutes (in some states for the first ballot, in others through the second). But once delegates are released from these state legal mandates, they are free to use their own judgment. And they also are also free to vote as they wish on the Platform, Rules or Credentials matters that precede the presidential roll call. So there are many ostensible Trump delegates who are legally pledged to him but who are actually Cruz supporters. These delegates are free to vote against Trump's interests on any and all critical matters that come before the convention. Heads up Paul Manaford: the first test will come days before the first ballot.

Democratic Party delegate selection rules are shaped by a form of representation literally called "the delegate model" by political scientists. In classic democratic theory the "delegate" is elected to exercise the will and instructions of those who elected her or him.

The Democratic Party, through three reform commissions, crafted a set of delegate selection rules that address important issues in both democratic theory and practical politics. I served on all three of these bodies. One of the systemic problems we tried to fix was what was called "the disloyal" delegate phenomenon, i.e. when a delegate was selected by a state party system pledged to a presidential candidate but was mandated by state law to vote for another presidential candidate.

The Democrats fixed this problem. The Republicans didn't.

The Democratic Party's "Candidate Right of Approval" (CRA)rule prevents this anomaly. Thus by party rule all of Secretary Clinton's delegates are Clinton supporters approved by her campaign, just as all of Senator Sanders' delegates are approved by his campaign. Unlike the Republican system there are no Trojan Horses. What the voters see and how they voted is what they get. Oh how Donald Trump would love CRA now.

But what about the question of role representation for ex-officio delegates -- those the press call superdelegates -- governors, senators, congress members, and party leaders including former Presidential candidates and former DNC chairs? CRA obviously doesn't apply because they are unbound. They are classic "trustees" free to exercise their judgment and vote their conscience. They exist to give the party some "wiggle room," in the case of an impending electoral disaster. These ex-officio trustees ensure that the elected and party officials who will have to run its general election campaign are part of the convention process, and will have some skin in the game. And oh how the Republican Establishment would love to have this in their current dilemma.

The Democratic party has adopted this fair and pragmatic hybrid model where 85% of the delegates are classic "delegate role representatives" and 15% of the delegates are "ex-officio trustees." In the eight Democratic National Conventions that have taken place since super delegates were created, there has not been one case where these delegates reversed a national mandate. But then again there has not been a case where the party's very existence was at stake. For the Republican Party, Cleveland may in fact be that kind of existential threat.

Without CRA the Republican Convention in Cleveland looms as a potential sordid spectacle of open delegate theft that Trump is already calling "corrupt" and "rigged" and that could lead to a walk-out of half the convention and tens of millions of votes in the fall. And without a significant class of super delegates whose principal responsibility is to the viability and future of the Party, the GOP has no legitimate way to try to save itself from an electoral catastrophe. It is a classic lose/lose.

Republican party rules have been a significant cause of the party's distress in the 2016 nominating season. They should be reformed. In its inevitable 2017 autopsy of why it once again was crushed in yet another presidential election, the GOP might wish to look beyond the obvious ideological and demographic coffin in which it has nailed itself.