Convention Buzz

08.27.12

RNC Sunday: Priebus Defends Tampa, Dreier Questions Abortion Platform

As Isaac gathers strength, Lloyd Grove talks to schmoozing Republicans in Tampa for the convention, from Rep. David Dreier decrying the GOP abortion plank to party chairman Reince Priebus standing up for the RNC host city—bad weather and all.

Republican House member David Dreier is heartily sorry about the social-issue planks in his party’s national convention platform and expects Democrats to exploit them to the hilt to scare off swing voters from Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.

“Absolutely,” Dreier told me Sunday afternoon in Tampa, when I asked if the uncompromising abortion and marriage planks could make the GOP look too extreme, especially in light of Missouri Rep. Todd Akin’s nearly universally condemned remarks about “legitimate rape.” Dreier predicted, however, that the Dems’ tactic will ultimately be “a non-starter,” though he said he wished the whole thing would just go away.

“I’m in California,” Dreier said. “I’m the only Republican [congressman] who’s right in Los Angeles—and I’ve made the case that there are four reasons I’m a Republican: free economy, limited government, strong defense, and personal freedom. I want the federal government to stay the heck out of social issues. That’s my personal view.”

The 60-year-old Dreier, who’s retiring this year after 16 terms representing California’s 26th Congressional District, which includes the Los Angeles suburbs at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, is hardly considered a crank among Republican true believers. He’s not only chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, which determines precisely how legislation will move or not move, but he’s also the parliamentarian of this week’s convention. In the past, he has supported the Defense of Marriage Act and opposed ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”—prompting speculation in the press about his own private life—but maybe now that he’s getting out of elective politics, he feels less bound by ideological correctness.

“I don’t want the federal government paying for or preventing abortion,” Dreier said as he schmoozed in front of the downtown Sheraton on a muggy, newsless day with former Alabama congressman Artur Davis, a disaffected ex-Barack Obama supporter who recently switched his party registration to Republican from Democrat. “I don’t want to amend the U.S. Constitution to define marriage,” Dreier added. “I mean, James Madison is spinning in his grave at the thought of that.”

The 44-year-old Davis, an African-American and a lawyer, on the other hand, appeared to take delight in trashing his former political allies. “There’s a lot of free-floating frustration in the Democratic Party,” said Davis, who ran unsuccessfully for governor of Alabama in 2010, “and they’re lashing out at whoever they can lash out at.” He added that Obama, whose campaign he co-chaired in 2008, “obviously…has not brought the change he promised, and now we’ve had some change in the negative direction.”

A featured speaker in Tampa—maybe this year’s Zell Miller, the former Democratic governor and senator from Georgia who at the 2004 GOP conclave eviscerated John Kerry, his one-time friend—Davis listed all the tried and true GOP talking points: persistently high unemployment, Obamacare, exploding deficits, and so on and so forth, but vehemently denied that they were talking points.

“The Democrats have this rhetorical trick: any time you make a case about this economy, they call them ‘Republican talking points,’” he complained. “But they aren’t talking points. They’re realities in the lives of the American people.”

Sen. Ron Johnson was slightly less tactful on whether Tampa was a prudent pick. “I don’t want to be getting into that,” he said, “but probably not.”

Dreier, for his part, sounded gleeful at welcoming Davis to the GOP: “I plead guilty that this is a dream of mine—to have more Hispanics, Asians, and blacks become part of the Republican Party.”

He acknowledged that Davis probably has a better chance for personal advancement as a Republican than as a Democrat, where “he would be standing in line…Here, he may have a Cabinet post…But hey, listen, I admire ambition.”

Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Isaac continued to gather strength, forcing the GOP to cancel Monday’s session. Inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum—where Republican message mavens had built a dark-stained wooden podium that CBS’s Bob Schieffer described as “look[ing] like a Swedish sauna”—party chairman Reince Priebus manfully defended his predecessor’s choice of the Gulf Coast resort city at the height of hurricane season.

“That’s a good question,” he said with a laugh, when I asked if he regretted the choice. “But if you peel it back a little bit, if [the possibility of bad weather] were the measure, then we shouldn’t have gone to Miami, New Orleans, Houston—I mean New York could be in a tough place. I just don’t buy that…This is a great place…Florida is an important state for us.” (Sen. Ron Johnson, from Priebus’s home state of Wisconsin, was slightly less tactful on whether Tampa was a prudent pick. “I don’t want to be getting into that,” he said, “but probably not.”)

Speaking of which, Priebus had some tart words for former Republican governor Charlie Crist, who on Sunday published an effusive endorsement of Obama in the Tampa Bay Times.

“Our favorite Democrat,” Priebus dubbed Crist, who lost to Marco Rubio in the 2010 Republican Senate primary and is considering opposing incumbent Gov. Rick Scott in 2014. “He’s a Democrat, of course…He’s got no future.”

It was a nice surprise to see former Texas senator Phil Gramm, who briefly ran for president in 1996, touring the convention site. “I’m just here having a good time,” he explained. The 70-year-old Gramm, whose claim in 2008 that America has become “a nation of whiners” didn’t do much to help the presidential campaign of his friend John McCain, claimed he isn’t disappointed that his own presidential ambitions fizzled. “No,” he said. “So much of politics is about timing, and the timing was wrong. Look, I’ve had a great career. Everything I’ve touched in my life has turned to gold. It hard to complain about it.”