Every four years, there’s early excitement over some remotely plausible scenario in which one of the two national political party conventions winds up having a deliberative function. Then eventually the possibility fades, and we are left with the underwhelming reality of conventions as presidential campaign infomercials with an awful lot of props and extras.
This year, the abundance of credible candidates and unpredictable direction of the early contests kept the “contested convention” fantasy alive for Democrats much longer than usual. I wrote a piece on February 28 discussing that possibility, three days before Joe Biden burst into a clear lead with a boffo Super Tuesday performance and set up a one-on-one 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 presumptive nominee Joe Biden has suggested it might be a “virtual” event. Either way, the odds of real drama in (or the cyberspace version of) Milwaukee are down to the unlikely possibility that Tara Reade’s sexual-assault allegation against Biden will seriously endanger his 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 at all? The New York Times’ Adam Nagourney and Matt Flegenheimer explore that hoary topic, and don’t really come up with an answer. Yes, they talk to as many older Democrats (even Walter Mondale!) as possible who actually remember when conventions were at least more spontaneous, if not essential. But nobody else has much to say in defense of the tradition. It is a bit like nuclear weaponry: If conventions give the presidential candidate a momentary polling “bump,” you don’t necessarily want to unilaterally abandon having one. But aside from the fact that presidential nominees are no longer chosen by conventions, and vice-presidential choices are no longer announced there either, the whole setting is incredibly retro, as I argued six years ago:
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.
In case you aren’t familiar with the devolution of the convention, here are a few milestones:
1976 Republicans: The last convention at which there was any doubt whatsoever of the identity of a major-party nominee.
1972 Democrats: George McGovern delivers his acceptance speech at 2:48 a.m. ET, which led to greatly tightened schedules and scripted proceedings in both parties.
1968: The last year before rules passed requiring primaries to choose most or all delegates. Also the last conventions featuring “spontaneous” demonstrations on behalf of candidates whose names were formally put into nomination.
1956 Democrats: Presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson let delegates name his running mate without making a recommendation. On the second ballot, Estes Kefauver edged John F. Kennedy (Albert Gore Sr., finished third on the first ballot).
1952 Democrats: Last multi-ballot presidential nomination contest; Stevenson drafted on the third ballot.
1940 Republicans: Stage-managed galleries stampede convention with chants of “We Want Willkie!”
1924 Democrats: Dark horse John W. Davis nominated on the 103nd ballot.
1920 Republicans: The original “smoke-filled room” chose Warren Harding, who was subsequently nominated on the tenth ballot.
1896 Democrats: Keynote speaker William Jennings Bryan electrifies the convention with his “Cross of Gold” speech and is himself nominated on the fifth ballot.
1880 Republicans: New York’s Roscoe Conkling delivers arguably the most famous nomination address ever, for Ulysses S. Grant, beginning:
When asked what state he hails from,
Our sole reply shall be,
He comes from Appomatox
And its famous apple tree.
Grant didn’t win that third nomination, but it was quite a speech.
All these episodes are virtually unimaginable now, though in theory someone could deliver a nominating speech that is long remembered (the last really famous convention speech, Barack Obama’s in 2004, was a keynote address). As we may discover if either or both of the conventions are “virtual,” you don’t need an arena full of live spectators to deliver a great speech, though there will probably be an extended debate over the advisability of canned applause.
If Democrats do go “virtual” and Republicans stick with an old-school mob in Charlotte, it will provide a high-profile reminder of each party’s relative degree of caution about COVID-19. Republicans may gloat about the courage and optimism involved in ignoring the risk, but you’d have to say nothing could be worse for the GOP down the general-election stretch than tales of steadily increasing coronavirus infections among the Republican delegates who gathered to cheer Trump to the rafters.
It would be better if both parties called the whole thing off, nominated candidates long distance, and stopped the increasingly empty ritual of convening.