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August 27, 2012 3:55 PM Conventions and the Power of Inertia

By Ed Kilgore

In what may be the only moment I agree with a “Republican strategist” this week, I endorse Mike Murphy’s complaint at Time’s Swampland:

Remind me: Why are we doing this?
That was the question bouncing around in my head after I spent my first 24 hours in Tampa on increasingly soggy ground. The twin horrors of Tropical Storm Isaac and the Nielsen ratings have already combined to wipe out Monday night’s planned activities, and you know what? Nobody cares.
Political conventions are over. Once, they meant something. I’d leap into the most terrifying of time machines to attend an old-school political convention with armies of local pols battling it out under a thick cloud of blue tobacco smoke in a stuffy convention hall, while the string-pulling bosses cut pragmatic deals over whiskey and judicial appointments in lavish hotel suites. Those conventions had drama because outcomes were unknown and stakes were high. Today delegates are bound through the application of TV-ad-ratings points, not machine deals. Delegates sit in the hall like background actors on a TV show, milling about to the director’s orders, wearing costumes and being denied a single line. It seems like a shabby ending to a great tradition. It’s time for a mercy killing.

Murphy doesn’t mention the role of conventions as major fundraising (as well as fund-spending!) venues, or the atavistic willingness of news organizations to send people to “cover” the non-events. But still, he’s asking the obvious question, and the slightly less obvious answer is this: we still have national political conventions for the same reason we still empower a handful of states to exert enormous power over presidential nominations—inertia. Someone, presumably a sitting president, would have to expend the political capital necessary to put these traditions to sleep. And when the brief window of opportunity comes to do so, there’s always something more valuable on which to spend that political capital.

So change comes slowly, if at all. Conventions stopped being deliberative decades ago. Gavel-to-gavel coverage by major networks is a distant, fading memory. The decision to bag today’s Republican Convention schedule may have been necessitated by the possibility of a weather disaster, but it was lubricated by the earlier decision of broadcast networks to forego live coverage entirely for Day One. Tampa is awash with journalists trying to find something interesting to write or talk about, in a pitched battle with party operatives trying to keep the whole show as boring as possible until the Big Chiefs get their unfiltered opportunity to address a Super-Prime-Time audience. I am very happy not to be there.

Eventually, we’ll have “conventions” that are nothing of the sort, but are simply large-venue speeches by the presidential ticket, ethnically and ideologically appropriate validators, and a few “real people.” For Republicans, they’ll offer far less revealing glimpses of the reigning conservative id than the annual CPAC confab in Washington (Democrats do not have an equivalent single defining event, but might well develop one if there is a Romney-Ryan administration). It’s possible we could lurch on for a long time calling these truncated hoedowns “national political conventions” before the tradition finally gives up the ghost. But as Murphy suggests, you’d really have to climb into a time machine to experience why these quadrennial gatherings originally existed and what they used to accomplish.

Every four years I re-read Robert K. Murray’s wonderful account of the 1924 Democratic Convention, The 103d Ballot, and give conventions as they used to exist their fair due. But it’s probably time to consign them to history.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • Toon Moene on August 27, 2012 4:08 PM:

    I must say I much like the 1968 Democratic Convention, with its heart winning theme: "Won't you please come to Chicago".

    What I never understood was the drive for the Republicans to hold its 2004 Convention in New York City (80 % Democrats - with the throngs of protesters to show it).

  • c u n d gulag on August 27, 2012 4:12 PM:

    Political Conventions - the appendix of the body politic.

  • c u n d gulag on August 27, 2012 4:13 PM:

    Or, now that I think about it, the nipples on men's teat's.

  • sick-n-effn-tired. on August 27, 2012 4:19 PM:

    The only purpose left is to provide fodder for Jon Stewart's "The best fucking political team in the world".
    Prancing through the halls asking questions of clueless participants more than will to incriminate themselves when a microphone ids put in their face.

  • Davis X. Machina on August 27, 2012 4:44 PM:

    British parties still have their big clambakes in Blackpool or Brighton or wherever, and they' nominating anyone...

  • gab on August 27, 2012 5:42 PM:

    My guess is that at some point, the networks (as well as other journalists) will pare back their coverage and pare back their coverage until conventions per se no longer exist.

    There will ba a couple of speeches, perhaps by the nominee(s) that will be aired, and that will be about it.

  • Peter C on August 27, 2012 6:07 PM:

    I disagree. I think conventions affirm who you are and what you stand for. I think Democrats should have them every two years. If we'd held a convention, we might have been able to shake off the 'lack of enthusiasm' meme AND/OR generated more enthusiasm.

    I've gained useful insights from Republican conventions too. They've shown up how shallow and mean-spirited Republicans are. I understand why they don't mind cancelling a day or two; ignorance, racism, selfishness and self-righteousness aren't especially attractive.

  • Peter C on August 27, 2012 6:09 PM:

    ... if we'd held a convention in 2010, I mean.

  • jheartney on August 27, 2012 7:07 PM:

    The GOP were the pioneers of the political-convention-as-infomercial. Their 1968 coronation of Nixon had no drama, but stood in contrast to the chaotic mess the Dems put on in Chicago that year. They repeated the same pattern in '72, which reinforced the image of the Democrats as slovenly hippies vs. the GOP as buttoned-down professionals, and were rewarded in November with the biggest blowout victory since LBJ trounced Goldwater.

    The Dems, bless 'em, took some time to learn not to dare allow any spontaneity at their convention (thus the sight of Ted Kennedy humiliating Carter on the platform in '80), but over time they figured it out. Now both parties successfully make the things into the best cures for insomnia that they can manage.

    The whole process will be complete when the only network covering the conventions is C-Span.

  • Andy Olsen on August 27, 2012 7:34 PM:

    If reporters are looking for a story, they could look outside, at the assembled police state. People are being arrested for having bandanas over their faces.