Pete Seat: Revisiting the original GOP convention site
Thursday, February 26, 2015 11:07 AM
JACKSON, Mich. – Republicans in Jackson, Michigan, are familiar with refurbishing projects. One of them is their claim to fame, Under the Oaks, the park that marks the site of the first Republican Party convention ever held on July 6, 1854. When I first visited the site in June 2013, a boulder shaded beneath a cluster of oak trees to commemorate the event was covered in graffiti, in desperate need of a facelift, a perfect metaphor for the national Republican Party.
Visiting Jackson was the idea of a friend. He suggested the city of 33,000 because of its place in Republican Party history books. When I made that initial trek up there it was nearly 103 years to the day after William Howard Taft became the first and only sitting president to swing through Jackson when he dedicated the plaque affixed to the boulder under the oaks. Locals didn’t much care for discussing Taft’s visit because the most lasting memory was a series of disparaging comments he made regarding the relatively unassuming historical marker.
A topic more interesting to them, however, was the future of the Republican Party. Many of those I spoke to a half-mile away at a monthly county Republican Party event had been involved for years, even decades, attending Saturday morning meetings to hear from elected officials and to share observations on the latest political news.
I thought about that trip this week as the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in Oxon Hill, Maryland, site of the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference, occupies a weekend-long space as center of the political universe. As political junkies sit in rapt attention awaiting speeches from prospective presidential candidates aiming to gobble up enthusiastic supporters from around the country, I will be wondering not about how it’s “playing in Peoria,” but how it’s playing in Jackson, Michigan.
CPAC, after all, is a non-Beltway event held inside the Beltway. And by that I mean conservatives from around the country, in the neighborhood of 10,000, attend every year to kick the tires of the top names in right-of-center punditry and policy before heading home to share their thoughts with friends and family. That powerful word-of-mouth echo chamber can sink a candidate or fuel a rising star in short order. In terms of the broader narrative, it can shape how the public views the Republican Party.
And that perception was an important point to the folks in Jackson. As they saw it, the party was well defined at the local and state levels. Nationally, however, it was defined by the flippant and ubiquitous mouthpieces littering political conversation. Without a plan, a driving force, an agenda full of ideas, they feared the party would remain rudderless moving into a consequential presidential election cycle.
They wanted someone to provide solutions to problems, answers to questions and hope to anxiety. Their biggest concern, however, was that the Republican Party is not the homogenous organization ridiculed by opponents, but a heterogeneous collage of competing interests, making it infinitely more difficult to define at the national level. A leadership vacuum foments discord among those disparate groups as they push and shove to the front of the line in the hopes of shaping the message.
To circumvent chaos, and to unify the team, Jackson Republicans naturally pointed to their governor, Rick Snyder, as an example of the right way to do it. He campaigned on a plan and, according to former county chair John Williams, stuck to that plan through thick and thin, even when other interests tried to lure him into proverbial rabbit holes. (Late last year it proved to do the trick when Snyder won reelection.)
And it was that success which led some, such as former state representative candidate Leland Prebble, to suggest a preferred solution to the problem of what the Republican Party stood for moving forward. Republicans needed to identify a candidate for president “now,” he told me. While that wasn’t an option in the summer of 2013, with CPAC providing an almost official start to the race for 2016, his wish may soon come true. v
Pete Seat is senior project manager at the Indianapolis-based Hathaway Strategies and author of the recently published book The War on Millennials.