June 24, 2022

Who needs political party conventions?

In 1880, Roscoe Conkling of New York electrified Republican delegates with a nominating speech on behalf of Ulysses Grant.
Photo: Bettmann Archives via Getty Images

Every four years there is early excitement about a plausible remote scenario in which one of the two national conventions of political parties ends up having a deliberative function. Then finally the possibility wears off, and we are left with the disappointing reality of conventions as presidential campaign commercials with loads of props and extras.

This year, the abundance of credible candidates and the unpredictable direction of the early contests kept the “contested convention” fantasy alive for Democrats much longer than usual. I wrote an article on February 28 about this possibility, three days before Joe Biden took a clear lead with a Super Tuesday boffo performance and had a head-to-head competition with Bernie Sanders. Needless to say, things have changed a bit since then. COVID-19 has already delayed the Democratic convention until August, and alleged candidate Joe Biden has suggested it could be a “virtual” event. Either way, the chances of a real drama in (or the cyberspace version of) Milwaukee are due to the unlikely possibility that Tara Reade’s sexual assault allegation against Biden could seriously endanger her nomination.

So particularly if the convention is no longer a “live” event (likely for Democrats, and still possible for Republicans) and serves no deliberative purpose, why bother? New York Time‘Adam Nagourney and Matt Flegenheimer explore this antiquated topic and don’t really find an answer. Yes, they speak to as many older Democrats (even Walter Mondale!) As possible who actually remember when conventions were at least more spontaneous, if not essential. But no one else has much to say to defend the tradition. It’s a bit like nuclear weapon: if conventions give the presidential candidate a momentary “bump” in the polls, you don’t necessarily want to unilaterally give up having one. But other than the fact that presidential candidates are no longer chosen by conventions, and vice-presidential choices are no longer announced there either, the whole thing is incredibly retro, as I argued six years ago. year :

Aside from the totally non-deliberative aspects of today’s conventions, there is something very anachronistic about the idea that the best way to get American attention is to go through an endless parade of elected officials standing in front of a podium in tightly scripted reading costumes. (with a few exceptions, Clint Eastwood) speech. I worked on this end of the Democratic convention operation from 1988 to 2008, and every four years I was amazed that we were doing it all over again. No progress in pyrotechnics or “Real People” or in the use of video could really obscure the reality that we were following a format better suited to the 19th century.

In case you are not familiar with the devolution of the agreement, here are some important steps:

1976 Republicans: The last convention at which there was no doubt about the identity of a major party candidate.

1972 Democrats: George McGovern delivers his acceptance speech at 2:48 a.m. ET, leading to dramatically tight schedules and scripted proceedings in both parties.

1968: the last year before the adoption of rules requiring primaries to choose most or all of the delegates. Also the latest conventions with “spontaneous” demonstrations on the part of the candidates whose names have been formally nominated.

1956 Democrats: Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson let delegates name his running mate without making a recommendation. In the second round, Estes Kefauver edged John F. Kennedy (Albert Gore Sr., was third in the first round).

1952 Democrats: last race for the presidential nomination with several ballots; Stevenson wrote in the third round.

1940 Republicans: Scramble convention of stage-run galleries with chants of “We Want Willkie!” “

Democrats of 1924: Dark Horse John W. Davis Named on 103rd Ballot.

Republicans of 1920: The original “smoke-filled room” chose Warren Harding, who was later named on the tenth ballot.

Democrats 1896: Keynote speaker William Jennings Bryan electrifies the convention with his “Golden Cross” speech and is himself nominated on the fifth ballot.

1880 Republicans: Roscoe Conkling of New York delivers arguably the most famous nominating speech of all time, for Ulysses S. Grant, beginning:

When asked what state he is from,

Our only answer will be,

It comes from Appomatox

And its famous apple tree.

Grant didn’t win that third nomination, but it was quite a speech.

All of these episodes are practically unimaginable now, although in theory someone could give a nominating speech that will long be remembered (the last really famous speech at the convention, that of Barack Obama in 2004, was an opening speech. ). As we can discover if one or both conventions are ‘virtual’, you don’t need an arena full of live spectators to deliver a great speech, although there is likely to be a lengthy debate on. the opportunity for canned applause.

If Democrats go ‘virtual’ and Republicans stick with an old-school crowd in Charlotte, it will be a high-profile reminder of each party’s relative degree of caution about COVID-19. Republicans can rejoice at the courage and optimism involved in ignoring the risk, but you have to say that nothing could be worse for the GOP in the general election than the stories of steadily increasing coronavirus infections among Republican delegates who gathered to cheer Trump on the rafters.

It would be better if both sides canceled everything, nominate candidates from a distance and stop the increasingly empty ritual of summons.