Washington, DC — When Republicans and Democrats meet at their national conventions to anoint Mitt Romney and Barack Obama as their Party nominees for President of the United States, few Americans will bother to interrupt their summer vacations long enough to watch more than a speech or two from either side. It’s not just that voters are tired after almost a full year of non-stop campaigning. The fact is, conventions themselves, staged meticulously by strategists and media consultants, have become increasingly stale for outsiders, looking more like extended televised pep rallies for party activists, lobbyists, politics junkies and media celebrities.
Is it time to scrap them? Or stop covering them? Not by a long shot….
It is easy to forget that, not long ago, these conventions used to be among the most anticipated, exciting, and consequential events in American politics. From the 1830s through the 1950s, conventions refused simply to coronate candidates. They picked them, while also tackling key public issues from Civil War to prohibition to civil rights to the Viet Nam War to tax policy.
Waves of reform since the early 1900s have stripped these gatherings of any real decision-making power. No national party convention has gone beyond a single ballot since Democrats took three to nominate Adlai Stevenson in 1952. None has voted on a platform plank or credentials fight since 1992. Gone are the days when freewheeling multi-ballot conventions gave us some of our best presidents: Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 (four ballots), Woodrow Wilson in 1912 (46 ballots), and Abraham Lincoln in 1860 (three ballots).
Party conventions represented a great reform when they first appeared in 1832. Credit for the first goes to the National Republicans, meeting in Baltimore that year to nominate Kentucky Senator Henry Clay; Clay would lose to the incumbent, Democrat Andrew Jackson, also nominated by convention that year. Originally, presidential candidates was chosen by a few party elders meeting behind closed door. Conventions threw the doors open to delegates from across the country and invited the public to watch. In their golden age, they could be dazzling spectacles rivaling a modern Super Bowl or World Series — the speeches, the deal-making, the surprises. The delegates, proud political professionals, made real choices, and usually good ones. Critics called them “bosses,” but they saw their job as winning elections and usually preferred capable, mainstream leaders.
Lincoln’s convention in 1860 showed the old system at its best, a three day, three ballot carnival of music, fireworks, and politics in frontier-era Chicago. Lincoln, a long-shot, used the setting to out-hustle better-known rivals led by New York’s U.S. Senator William Seward, who led on the first two ballots. Lincoln’s team used every trick in the book – packing the galleries, manipulating floor seats, cutting deals for votes — but mostly they just talked. They buttonholed delegates and explained personally to each why their man deserved support. It was the kind of inside politics that made reformers cringe, but it gave us one of the best presidents in American history.
Voters finally rebelled. Florida held the first binding presidential primary in 1904, and a dozen states soon followed. Party leaders fought the tide. In 1912, for instance, former President Theodore Roosevelt won eight out of 11 primaries for that year’s Republican nomination, but backers of incumbent President William Howard Taft used their control of the Party’s national committee and credentials process and deny seats to some 235 Roosevelt delegates from contested states – enough to block any challenge. In 1968, Democrats nominated Hubert Humphrey, the sitting Vice President to the incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson saddled with the widely unpopular war in Vietnam, despite the fact that Humphrey had not run in a single primary (though had he endorsed “favorite son” stand-ins in several states who won on his behalf). This contributed to violence in Chicago and prompted major party reforms.
Today, Democratic and Republicans both require each state to choose delegates in an open process, primary or caucus. The long state-by-state slog, starting more than a year before Election Day, has replaced the conventions for settling party fights. By the time the conventions come in late summer, the arguments are done. The candidates are picked, they have announced their Vice Presidential running mates, and the platforms are prepackaged
So what’s left for the conventions themselves? Aside from the lavish parties, social regalia, and good times for those lucky enough to attend, I see three things that make them still compelling for voters across the country:
- The big speeches: After months of over-exposure, negative attacks, and sore feelings from the nomination fights, the candidates deserve the chance to reintroduce themselves before the final push, and the public deserves to see it. The convention gives each party one last clean opportunity to make its case, feature his best speakers, tout its top issues, and show its enthusiasm. Prime time convention speeches usually give the candidates a full hour to address voters directly without interruption. These speeches are often been the best and most memorable of the campaigns. The cacophony, spin, and nit-picking will start soon enough.
- A window on the next administration: But there’s more. Politics is a team sport. A vote for Romney or Obama elects not just the one man but also his friends and Party. As president, Romney would choose thousands of appointees to staff the federal government, just as Obama has: judges, agency heads, commissioners, generals, Cabinet members, and all the assistants and deputies. Those delegates in the room represent the prime talent pool for the incoming administration. They are on the ballot just as much as the candidates, and this is our chance to take a good look at them.
- A limiting factor on the fall campaigns. Finally, simple logistics demand that the final, full throttle campaign cannot start until the conventions are over. Candidates must be named, platforms adopted, and party organizations set. By pushing the starting gun until Labor Day, the conventions give us one last chance to enjoy the summer and not worry too much they about politics.
National conventions have a different role today than historically, but it’s still am important one. So let’s enjoy it, and then buckle up for an exciting race.