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January 30, 2014 3:14 PM Time To Shut Down the Conventions

By Ed Kilgore

Here’s some interesting news from Molly Hooper at The Hill:

This could be the year that Congress bans taxpayer money to pay for presidential political conventions.
Public money for the four-day partisan shindigs has long been a political bull’s-eye. But effort after effort has fallen short even as criticism of the party-heavy gatherings has increased.
Now, that streak could end. Bipartisan legislation targeting political convention money has passed the Republican-led House and is being championed in the upper chamber by Sen. Tim Kaine (Va.), a former Democratic National Committee chairman who is close to President Obama.
The bill, which was pushed through the House by Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), would redirect money from political conventions to pediatric research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Well, from an “optics” point of view, this is a real tough choice, eh? Sick kids versus free advertising for pols.

Actually, as Hooper points out, public money only covers a fraction of convention costs (mostly for security and infrastructure improvements). Most is raised by the host city. Much of the labor is supplied by volunteers.

But seriously, the good news here (other than for sick kids) is that if public money is pulled, it might provide the final push needed to convince the parties to condemn the rickety edifice of the Quadrennial Convention, tear it down, and try some new way to present The Candidate and The Message.

Aside from the thoroughly non-deliberative aspects of latter-day conventions, there’s something highly anachronistic about the conceit that the best way to get the attention of Americans is via an endless parade of elected officials standing in front of a podium in suits reading tightly scripted (give or take the very occasional Clint Eastwood) speeches. I worked in that end of the Democratic convention operation from 1988 to 2008, and every four years I was amazed we were doing it again. No advances in pyrotechnics or “Real People” or use of videos could really obscure the reality that we were following a format that was better suited for the nineteenth century.

Now conventions aren’t totally useless. There’s something to be said for the painfully obvious display of the GOP’s lack of diversity; every time the camera shifts from the podium to the delegates, it looks like a Lawrence Welk Show episode gone very bad. But the opportunity for deception more than outweighs that feature: the convention format has also allowed Paul Ryan to stand before a relatively large audience with his sainted mother and stoutly pledge to defend her Medicare benefits from the godless Democrats. And I’m still a bit surprised that in 2004 the Republicans didn’t restage the “Mission Accomplished” aircraft carrier landing and fly George W. Bush in his flight suit right up to the podium.

In any event, there has to be a better way. But the power of inertia is great; 2016 convention planning will begin before you know it, and before you know it, we’ll be following the same stale format. So Godspeed the elimination of public funds, and consign the Quadrennial Convention to the history books, where it belongs along with the actual work it used to perform.

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.

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