I got to know Cleveland pretty well during the making of Reason Saves Cleveland with Drew Carey: How To Fix the Mistake on the Lake and Other Once-Great American Cities. That 2010 documentary looked at all of the ways that Cleveland has declined since its high-water mark around 1950 (the same holds true for many, many American cities). Despite a big-city ambience and some totally unique offerings, if a place defines the Rust Belt, it's "the mistake on the lake." (And please, STFU already about the city's "world-famous" orchestra.)
Various pressing issues in Cleveland—mediocre-to-awful schools, declining population, terrible day-to-day governance, punitive business regulations and zoning, and more—stem from an inability to change how things are done, even when everyone regrets the outcomes. If you watch the full doc below, you'll see that sensibility on full display especially in the final section, which covers a city council meeting Drew Carey and I attended after the original series had come out. Councilmen weren't even sure how to get certain things done, like putting up a non-conforming business sign, for their constituents.
At the same time they are well-meaning and sometimes incompetent, local leaders (including businesspeople and folks in the nonprofit sector) are constantly trying to throw Hail Mary passes that will somehow "save" or resurrect the city. God forbid that people get down to brass tacks and figure out how to make a place safe without constantly harrassing minorities, attractive to business and residents, and good at providing basic services. Instead, what you get in Cleveland and so many other languishing towns are new money-losing convention centers to replace old money-losing convention centers, taxpayer-funded sports stadiums, and fiscal black holes like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or that perennial policy bad penny, "light rail." Rather than take the time and do the work of building the city in small but important ways—sell off municipal golf courses, say, or jack up the number of charter schools for all residents and decrease the number of land-use zones from a mind-numbing 20 to something like Houston's near-zero approach—the city's leaders are always looking for that big money play that will win the game, so to speak.
Even—or maybe especially—in the wake of the Cleveland Cavaliers bringing home the city's first sports title since 1964, you can expect even more of that sort of junk. While it's nice that Cleveland can shed its loser image in one dimension, it really doesn't matter if the Cavs repeat or if the Browns and the Indians make the playoffs. If Cleveland is going to ever come back as a city, it needs to do different things differently. Some good policies that have worked in other cities are laid out in substantive-but-entertaining Reason Saves Cleveland.
But before Cleveland can do different things differently, its residents and especially its leaders need to think differently.
Which brings me to the Republican Party, which is technically in Cleveland this week to nominate Donald Trump as its presidential candidate and shares a similar mind-set with Cleveland. Talking to Republicans over the past couple of days has been fascinating. Most of the delegates and activists I've spoken with readily acknowledge that Donald Trump is just short of a total disaster. Here's a guy, after all, who has never held elective office and makes junior-high-level gaffes when it comes to basic knowledge about how government works (at one point, he talked about his sister, a federal judge, "signing laws"). For the entire Obama years (and with some notable exceptions such as Rand Paul, Mike Lee, Justin Amash, and Thomas Massie), the GOP has either ultimately gone along with every spending hike or simply twiddled its collective thumbs. The GOP has shown at almost every opportunity that it really is not serious about governing. Trump is not the cause of that, of course, but he is clearly an effect of a party that is fundamentally unserious.
And yet, virtually all the Republicans I've talked to are crossing their fingers and trying to talk themselves into the idea that the only reason Trump can't crack higher numbers is because the media are against him and conservatives more generally (they say this even as they say he's not a "real" conservative). They're still holding onto the idea that Hillary Clinton will be arrested, indicted, and convicted, which is about as smart as thinking that a new convention center will regentrify a city that's lost more than half its peak population. Many of the delegates and attendees I've talked with are totally on-board with libertarian positions regarding same-sex marriage, criminal-justice reform, foreign policy, free trade, and even immigration. Yet when you suggest that the GOP actually start strutting that stuff, you see the same mix of panic and fear that I saw in the face of Cleveland city council members and muckety-mucks.
But here's the deal, GOPpers: A political party is like a city. People evacuate cities that no longer create the right environment for parents, kids, and businesses to prosper. And they evacuate political parties too, and that's happening right now for the Republicans despite wins at the state and local levels. Just 26 percent of voters identify as Republican and the reasons are pretty clear why. When the Republicans were in power, they not only failed to deliver on their promises, they delivered in all the wrong ways: massive spending hikes, huge increases in regulations, and incompetency at foreign policy. The Republicans at the RNC know this, but they refuse to fully admit it and make sure it won't happen again. Indeed, Donald Trump's budget plan, such as it is, calls for prolonging and increasing the already-historically high federal budget:
"Clinton would increase spending by $1.45 trillion over ten years, from 22.1 to 22.7 percent of GDP." Under Trump, spending would increase "from 22.1 to 22.5 percent of GDP."
When it comes to so-called social issues, the GOP is still trying to work increasingly unpopular positions on everything from abortion to pot to porn to immigration. They don't need to do anything about anything, of course, because don't you know Hillary and the Clinton Initiative and the Democrats and everybody else is so patently godawful that the election and power will come their way. Or, same thing, they don't need to change on social issues—including simple respect for people who don't look, speak, smell, or fuck like them—because that would break apart St. Reagan's "three-legged stool" of social conservatives, economic conservatives, and defense conservatives. But check the calendar, folks. It's 2016, and vast and growing majorities of Americans have no problems with alternative lifestyles (and btw, there are only alternative lifestyles). Just a few years ago, a GOP president and Congress "abandoned free-market principles to save the free-market system," and we're still facing the blowback from a reckless, ill-conceived, and poorly executed foreign policy that both Reps and Dems have pushed. Hillary Clinton is an endangered species, among the last of unreconstructed hawks who believe Woodrow Wilson was on to something when he wanted to make the world safe for democracy. And yet every Republican in Cleveland will tell you we cannot afford to elect someone who will retreat an inch from anywhere we currently have troops.
The Republicans, in other words, will do everything it takes to keep making the same mistakes over and over again. They will marvel that the outcomes never improve. They will stick with their awful, statist, dumb version of conservatism even as they mouth libertarian platitudes about the sanctity of the individual and the need for a government that does less and spends less (which is what a majority of Americans want).
So it's fitting that the GOP has gathered in Cleveland, a city that sadly prides itself on its "world-class orchestra" and NBA championship and will do everything it can to never do anything differently.
It doesn't mean that Cleveland's not a great place to visit. It really is.
But you know what? Fewer and fewer people want to live there.