It had, no doubt, been a rough 24 hours for Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus when he took the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Friday.
The day before, the GOP’s most recent presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, had delivered a speech excoriating Donald Trump and advocating a plan to thwart his campaign by having the other candidates tacitly agree to cede certain states to each other, denying the current frontrunner huge blocks of votes and forcing the GOP into a contested convention in July.
Shortly thereafter, Trump delivered a campaign stump speech that earned him the better part of an hour’s worth of free coverage from multiple television networks. Trump used his time to rip Romney as a loser and a failure and to complain about his treatment at the hands of the party establishment.
The move angered many Republicans, like Roy Postel, a Trump supporter from the Chicago area who was attending the annual gathering of conservative activists outside Washington, DC.
“I think the whole pushback from the Republican hierarchy is shameful,” Postel said, adding that he believed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz would be facing similar attacks if he were the frontrunner. “It’s pointed at Trump now because he leads in the polls, but if Cruz was pulling 40 percent, all their animosity, all the rancor would be pointed towards him.”
By suggesting a plan to disrupt Trump’s advance to the nomination, Postel said: “They’re sticking their finger in the eye of all the voters. So what’s the point of the process if leadership won’t respond? They’re asking us to get in line and just take whoever we’ve got. Well, what’s that gotten us for the last 30 years? It’s heartbreaking. The last presidential candidate they pushed this hard against was Ronald Reagan.”
Opposition to the next Reagan is not a good look for the RNC – particularly at CPAC, where the 40th president is a treated as a figure of almost mystical power – and Priebus clearly knew he had some work to do on Friday morning.
So, he launched right into it in his conversation with Sean Hannity of Fox News.
“Let me just clear something up for everybody,” he said. “Whoever the nominee is of our party, they are going to get the full backing and the 100 percent support of the Republican Party.”
He continued, “We don’t take sides, regardless of what you may think or read. There is no side that we take at the Republican Party.”
Hannity, who has been very supportive of Trump, was not willing to let the issue go that easily.
“There seems to be a strategy to target one candidate and force a brokered convention,” he said.
“The people are going to decide,” Priebus said. “There’s no way that the people are not going to decide. There’s no way that the delegates are not going to decide. If you were at the convention you would be bound on the first vote, and the majority of you would choose the nominee. And whoever the majority chooses is going to be the nominee of our party.”
But a tautology is not an argument. The fact that the delegates at the convention will decide ignores the fact that there appears to be a movement by influential figures in the party to manipulate the selection of delegates in the first place.
“They’re going to do what they’re going to do, but eventually the people are going to decide,” Priebus insisted again, while assuring Hannity that “the odds of a contested convention are very small.”
“But they’re trying to influence the process in a way that would be disruptive,” Hannity said.
“Well it’s a strategy that people can use, but I would suggest it’s better to win,” Priebus replied vaguely.
It has to be a tough position for Priebus. His party’s leading candidate is campaigning on a promise to burn the establishment Priebus runs to the ground. Worse, not only would Trump completely upend the GOP’s hierarchy, polls suggest he would also lose to Democrat Hillary Clinton in a general election. Yet in an attempt to prevent the party from splintering, Priebus publicly has to promise to assist in both efforts if the voters ask him to do so.
And it’s not as though Trump doesn’t have vulnerabilities that a concerted establishment attack could exploit. The night before Priebus’s appearance, Trump had appeared alongside his fellow candidates in the 11th GOP debate. The billionaire took the opportunity to assure the audience of millions that, despite suggestions to the contrary from his opponent, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, he does not, in fact, have a small penis.
Outside the convention hall, Susana Postel, who had traveled to CPAC with her husband, said that she had been a Trump supporter until that moment.
“I was a big Trump supporter, you know, because of the wall, the Muslims, the things he’s been saying,” she said. “But oh, my goodness, the part of the debate where he referred to his manhood really, really turned me off.
“So, I’m not sure. I think I’m back to the drawing board,” Postel said.