The Conventional Wisdom Why It’s Wrong

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All these developments have conspired to take the old-fashioned drama out of conventions, to drain the humanity from the proceedings and show us politicians as polished and coifed as network anchors. So if conventions no longer seem to serve the purpose they once did, why bother? They are expensive to put on, they merely ratify what primary voters already have decided, and in a distinctly nonpolitical, apathetic age, they are so, well, political.

 
In the golden age candidates were often chosen behind closed doors—but for all the wrong reasons.
 

A quarter-century ago walter Cronkite could call conventions and the networks’ gavel-to-gavel coverage of them a national civics lesson. Now, with no burning issues in the land, the networks are content to limit their coverage to a few speeches, and the very idea that conventions can serve as a civics lesson seems quaint. Indeed, ABC will conclude its daily convention coverage this year with the nighttime panel show “Politically Incorrect,” where the one-time civics lesson is reduced to an exercise in postmodern irony, with miscellaneous celebrities playing a role once reserved for sages and experts. The wheelers and dealers are long gone, and with the presidential nomination process wrapped up by mid-March, the late-summer conventions feel like historical leftovers.

That’s too bad, because for all their lack of drama and relevance, they still provide an important function for party activists who regard their delegate credentials as tickets to a slice of history. Moreover, as the veteran political consultant Hank Sheinkopf puts it, “Every four years children get to see adults talking about the political system in a serious way at the conventions. And the rest of the country gets to see their fellow citizens—the delegates—participating in the political system. That’s not unimportant.” More than six thousand Americans will serve as delegates or alternates at the two major-party gatherings this year. Many will be officeholders, from U.S. senators to local township officials, but some will be ordinary party activists who may never get the chance again, who may have waited years for the chance to sit on the convention floor and walk in famous footsteps. The fifteen thousand journalists on hand may confess to professional boredom; the delegates will not.

Moreover, despite the complaints of journalists, conventions still are capable of producing some news. Take just one example from recent years. In 1988 the Republicans met in New Orleans to ratify the nomination of George Bush, who had dispatched his opponents in the early primaries. At first glance the convention appeared to be shaping up to a television-show affair devoid of drama and mystery, intended more for viewers at home than for the delegates in the hall. Yet a deeper look revealed all kinds of minidramas. As he prepared to accept a nomination he had been working for since 1980, Bush was behind in the polls and apparently unable to shed the formidable shadow of the outgoing President, Ronald Reagan. He had yet to decide on a vicepresidential choice, and most observers figured he would pick one from a familiar cast of interchangeable Republican elders. His campaign was also haunted by the fact that no Vice President had been elected to the big office since Martin Van Buren.

Would Bush be able to assert himself as a candidate in his own right? Could he graciously separate himself from Reagan? Whom would he choose for Vice President and what would that tell us about his strategy? Finally, could George Bush—a product of Eastern, Ivy League Republicanism in a party that was tilting south and west—energize the Republican party’s base, which remained skeptical of his intentions?

Everything was riding on the convention. Then, within only three days, Bush managed to stun the nation with his selection of a young, unknown U.S. senator named Dan Quayle as his running mate; he breathed life into his campaign with a single phrase—“Read my lips: No new taxes”—which, ironically enough, proved to be his undoing four years later; and he coined two other phrases that would find their way into lasting everyday currency: “a kinder, gentler nation” and “a thousand points of light.” Not bad for a glorified television commercial.

Indeed, New Orleans in 1988 provided all sorts of small dramas suggesting that conventions hadn’t quite lost their ability to feed the beast of the news cycle. The surprising nomination of Quayle led to a spate of stories about the new candidate’s very mild military record, which in turn enhanced the drama when Quayle made his much-anticipated acceptance speech. (He made a glancing reference to the controversy by saying he was proud to have served in the Indiana National Guard.) Meanwhile, Bush’s call for a “kinder, gentler nation” was interpreted as an almost shocking shot at the Reagan years. Also, in describing the nation’s network of charities, churches, and other voluntary organizations as “points of light,” the candidate anticipated the current debate about making such organizations the main local administrators of social welfare programs. Bush’s speech became the 1988 campaign’s line of demarcation. When he left New Orleans, he never looked back.