In my time attending national party conventions, I have gone under a wide variety of auspices. Originally, in 1980 and with a smaller reprise in 1984, I sought (and received) official authorization from both the Republican and the Democratic National Committees to come as myself, that is, as head of a research team. But I have also attended under the auspices of interest groups (Coca-Cola for the Democrats in 1988), of other official party bodies (the Republican Governors Association for the Republicans in 1996), of formal arms of the convention itself (program staff for the Democrats in 2000), and even of the news media (as support to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel several times). But the most common auspices have actually been individual states. Pennsylvania Republicans helped me early on, New Jersey Democrats in more recent years.

Yet the most frequent—and this year, in many ways, the most interesting—have been the Wisconsin Republicans. I may never have seen a happier delegation. They have the Republican National Chairman in Reince Priebus. They have a Governor with a truly national profile in Scott Walker. They have an incumbent Republican Senator in Ron Johnson. They have a Republican senatorial candidate with even more impeccable Wisconsin credentials in Tommy Thompson. They have one of the Convention Co-Chairs, in long-serving national committeewoman Mary Buestrin. And last but not least, they have the Republican nominee for Vice President in Paul Ryan. All this in a state that last went Republican for President in 1984, when it was nearly impossible not to do so.

A Day in the Life of a Delegate

What I do, of course, is write about national party conventions, courtesy of these connections. (Though being an international authority on American conventions often feels like nothing so much as being the author of “Great Guide Dogs of the Spanish-American War”.) But what do Delegates, along with the Alternates and Guests who collectively make up a state delegation, actually do? Let me set out the minimal calendar for the Wisconsin Republican delegation, the set of events to which everyone is invited because they are officially part of the delegation. Remember that there are many other convention-based events to which delegation members are welcome, and which they individually choose to attend. Delegation breakfasts with their associated speakers, along with official sessions of the full convention in the hall, are the main substantive part of this, and I shall attend to this substance at greater length below. But first, let me try to round up full set of delegation-focused invitations so far:

  • Saturday PM, Joint Wisconsin/Mississippi Reception in honor of National Chair Reince Priebus
  • Sunday AM, Champagne Brunch at Avila Country Club in Honor of the full Wisconsin Delegation
  • Sunday PM, Welcome Event at Tropicana Field from Tampa Bay Host Committee for all state delegations—sort of the RNC version of the Olympics opening ceremonies
  • Monday AM, Wisconsin Delegation Breakfast, with speakers
  • Monday AM, Scheduled first session of the full convention—cancelled by tropical storm Isaac
  • Monday PM, Scheduled second session of the full convention—gaveled to order at 2:00 PM but then directly adjourned
  • Monday PM, Joint Reception at Cha-Cha Coconuts at St. Petersburg Pier for Wisconsin, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and New York
  • Monday PM, RNC Late-Night Reception in honor of National Chairman Reince Priebus
  • Tuesday AM, Wisconsin Delegation Breakfast, with speakers
  • Tuesday AM, Wisconsin session of Craftsman House United project, Heroes at Home, building modular homes for veterans
  • Tuesday PM, Actual first (afternoon) session of the full convention
  • Tuesday PM, Joint Wisconsin/Louisiana Boat Cruise
  • Tuesday PM, Actual second (evening) session of the full convention
  • Wednesday AM, Wisconsin Delegation Breakfast at the home of Ron and Joyce Wanek, Celebrating Wisconsin and Honoring Governor Scott Walker
  • Wednesday PM, Beer & Brats Bash at Liberty Plaza celebrating Wisconsin delegates and benefitting “Citizens Helping Heroes”
  • Wednesday PM, Meet & Greet with Tommy Thompson, Wisconsin Senate candidate, at the Starship II on Tampa Bay
  • Wednesday PM, Third session of the full convention

The Politics of the Day

The number of other invitations to members of the delegation, those invitations which come by way of the state delegation but are not specifically ‘Wisconsin events’, is nearly limitless. And there is of course a raft of politicking at the convention which involves candidates from other states, candidates who may attract some support within the Wisconsin delegation. But what can we say about the explicitly political content of the key calendar event regularly and specifically aimed at the whole delegation, namely, the daily breakfasts? In part, these have a logistical purpose, reviewing the day’s events and instructing delegates on how—mechanically—to support and take advantage of them. Two people at my table for breakfast this morning remarked that the speaker to whom they most looked forward was Colleen Coyle, central staff coordinator for the delegation. (In deference to the ostensibly major speakers, these two can remain nameless.)

Yet these breakfasts also feature an explicit politics that is completely distinct from, say, the Welcome Event at Tropicana Field or the Cha-Cha Coconuts at the St. Petersburg Pier. So what does this ‘real politics’ look like? The liveliest incarnation so far came at the champagne brunch on Sunday. Perhaps this was because everyone was still at peak energy level. Or perhaps it was because this gathering was delegates, alternates, and guests only—us by ourselves. In any event, Brad Courtney, Republican State Chairman, presided and opened with an anecdote about agreeing to take the Chairmanship when his predecessor, Reince Priebus, became Republican National Chairman—just weeks before Governor Scott Walker introduced the budget that set off a year of rancorous protest and produced a recall election, one that was ultimately unsuccessful. Courtney noted proudly that, as a result, Wisconsin had become “a blueprint for the nation”.

He thanked Phil Prange, organizer of many of the events for Wisconsin and a dozen other states, who said a few words and then turned the floor over to Mary Buestrin, long-serving Republican National Committeewoman from Wisconsin and one of the
CoChairs of the full convention. (She and I share the experience of having done our first convention in 1980, though the delegation was said, at a subsequent breakfast, to have a member whose first convention was 1952!) Buestrin spoke a bit about her role as National Committeewoman (“taking care of Wisconsin”), then underlined the two absolutely fundamental tasks of the full convention: to make official the nominations of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan as Republican presidential and vice-presidential candidates, and to do so in a way that maximized the ‘bump’ in public support for this ticket that followed from its official nomination.

Buestrin reminded members of the delegation that their job, in this regard, was to stay ‘on message’, and she introduced Nathan Conrad, press liaison for the state Republican Party, as the source for consultation if questions arose about this process. Conrad, in common with most individuals who hold that post in most state parties for both Democrats and Republicans, would be producing concise sheets of ‘talking points’ for the day to help with this process. Buestrin was then followed by the clear ‘star’ of the brunch, Governor Scott Walker, the man who had imposed sweeping budget reform, survived the resultant recall, and was an evident favorite of the delegation.

Walker, in forceful mode, made two main points. He began by repeating the argument from Mary Buestrin, about the need to stay ‘on message’ no matter what, and he elaborated this by reminding delegation members that this concern arose most commonly when journalists asked about specific other things. If the main theme was the economy and its travails, then all such other themes were at best diversions, at worst precise embodiments of going ‘off message’. Walker then interpreted the main theme, again forcefully. The president had failed; in his failure, he was saddling the future—our children and our grandchildren—with mounting debt and declining opportunities. The Republican ticket knew what had to be done in response. Given the opportunity, they would do it.

Walker was to reappear as a featured speaker at the first delegation breakfast on Monday—a true bow to his home delegation, since he is widely in demand as a speaker for others as well. Courtney again presided; Prange was again saluted for his work on national convention events; and Courtney added salutes to various state committee members and county chairs. The first of two main speakers (Walker being the second) was Reince Priebus, previous Republican State Chair and now National Chair. This, too, was an obvious salute to the home delegation, since Priebus was in some sense now ‘chairman of all the states’. His members were duly and demonstrably appreciative.

Priebus quoted Isaiah, “Send me, Lord”, arguing that what Scott Walker had done in Wisconsin—and by extension what Mitt Romney must do in the nation—was to make his policy commitments explicit and then honor them in office. Announce your goals, work hard on them, and accept the result. He described the policies of the president, conversely, as representing an assault on the American Dream, and argued that this election had to represent a turning point, away from those policies. He was followed by Governor Walker who, this particular morning, was losing his voice. Walker began with several personal stories, including proposing to his wife Tonette after the acceptance speech of George H.W. Bush at the Republican Convention of 1992. He saluted Priebus, Romney, and Paul Ryan, and he again argued that this election was about having a better life for the children and the grandchildren.

Tuesday’s breakfast brought a different cast of characters. This time, Courtney saluted the state representatives and state senators in attendance, with a few further words for Phil Prange, the event organizer, and especially for Colleen Coyle, the staffer charged with making the whole show run. The lead speaker of the day was then Ron Johnson, incumbent Republican Senator from Wisconsin. Johnson excoriated the president for sending Congress a sequence of budgets that went nowhere, and that he described as evincing no seriousness about addressing the problems of fiscal imbalance and a growing deficit.

Johnson was followed by Stephen Hayes, long-time correspondent for The Weekly Standard and biographer of Dick Cheney, former Vice-President. Hayes largely spoke about his Wisconsin roots, and about the early partisan staff work that had chased him into journalism. The final speaker was then John Fund, conservative analyst and author, who made the strongest pitch yet for the distinctive place of Wisconsin in national politics. In his narrative, Wisconsin had been the seedbed of many of the central programs of the New Deal as well as being the founding influence on the creation of AFSCME (the union for governmental employees) but was now providing “the correction”. He also spoke on behalf of his new book about voting rules and vote fraud.

What makes these presentations as a collectivity quite different from most of those that were occurring before other state delegations—or indeed, from those that occurred before Wisconsin in 2008—was their remarkably ‘Wisconsin-centric’ character. For purposes of these breakfast presentations, most states would be hearing from a sample of the rotating speaker teams that are organized specifically for this purpose. At a good example of these from the Wisconsin delegation in 2008, Wisconsin Republicans heard from Mitch Daniels, Governor of Indiana, and from Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman, candidates for Senator and Governor in California. In 2012, by contrast, at least as this is posted, no one has mounted the Wisconsin breakfast podium without clear roots or current attachments to the state.

As a minor note, one of the things that also distinguishes the delegation is that an impressive minority of delegates and alternates had found their way to the convention hall on Monday afternoon, for that ten-minute session in which the convention was convened and adjourned. Some of these attended out of a sense of duty, and some attended in order to get a sense of convention organization for future days. But all would have spent an hour or so of round trip in order to be witnesses to ten-minus minutes of official business. By this time tomorrow, there ought to be a lot more real business to use in comparing this convention to other Republican Conventions and to their Democratic counterparts.