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As conventions go, virtual was virtuoso last week for the Democrats. It’s hard to pick the best of many good moments: the roll call that simultaneously nominated Joe Biden while showcasing America in all its panoramic diversity? The home run speeches by citizens exalted (Barack Obama) and every day (the New Hampshire teen who spoke despite his stutter about the confidence he gained from fellow stutterer Biden)?
As Republicans amble through their split-personality affair this week — remote but for a few hundred delegates who’ll conduct business in person in Charlotte, N.C. — they’ve dispensed with spiritual uplift. I like monster movies, but this one’s been a doozy, serving up nightmares of how, under Joe Biden, “we’d be lucky if we could see any doctor.” Oh, and we’d “abolish the suburbs” while letting MS-13 “live next door.”
Whichever approach you prefer, here’s a suggestion for something even better four years hence: No conventions. At all. In-person or virtually.
These quadrennial confabs originated in the 1830s with a deadly serious purpose: nominating parties’ presidential and vice presidential candidates. But anyone who hasn’t spent decades trapped in a mineshaft knows that that purpose ended back in the Age of Aquarius. Beginning in 1972, both Democrats and Republicans switched to primaries, handing nominating duties over to their party faithful.
What you may not know is that taxpayers fork out $100 million -- half each to the GOP and Dems — for convention security, mostly to reimburse host cities for their law enforcement costs. Milwaukee and Charlotte were in line for that money this year before the pandemic scuttled in-person conventions.
Yes, $100 million is a drop in the federal budget bucket. That’s a compelling argument for putting more of our attention toward enacting deficit reduction with real bite. It is not a good argument for frittering away those millions on two bashes for political activists and reporters, each spanning the better part of a week. (Contrary to the rantings of the reality TV star of this week’s convention reality show, the press is not the enemy of the people. But we’re too comfortable about accepting a few drinks and interviews while the public foots the bill keeping us safe.)
... few people want to tune in to glitzy, four-night infomercials. And who can blame them?
The party gatherings have lost not just their purpose but Americans’ interest as well. The TV networks dumped gavel-to-gavel coverage in the 1980s, bowing to shrinking audiences and the realization that conventions had become, in one writer’s apt phrasing, “little more than syncopated pep rallies.” The Democrats’ opening night last week lost a quarter of the viewers who’d watched the same evening four years earlier, though that tally doesn’t reflect those who watched on streaming services, a slippery eel of a number to capture.
What seems indisputable is that few people want to tune in to glitzy, four-night infomercials. And who can blame them? Sandwiched between the advertising and news bombardments of the primaries and the fall campaign, when the candidates dump their ample donors’ dough on all the propaganda that’s fit to air, the conventions are a superfluous overlay.
I wish I had a nickel for each year that excitement-craving pundits have gushed, There could be a brokered convention this year! Such predictions for the Democrats in 2020 fizzled, as they have every four years since 1956. The last time a convention had a smidgeon of frisson was 1980, when Ted Kennedy sought a rule change to pry delegates away from President Carter. That failed, as the betting money had suggested before the Democrats assembled in Madison Square Garden.
Perhaps parties might need to plan standby, virtual conventions in the future in the unlikely event no candidate emerges from the primaries with the necessary delegates to win the nomination (political scientist Maxwell Palmer suggests this possibility).
But we certainly don’t need the in-person extravaganzas of the past. I say this having covered three conventions as a reporter in the 1980s and 90s and loved the experience: the sea of humanity in convention halls, awash in colors from flags, placards, and clothing; the joy of politicos’ preternatural gift for turning a memorable phrase. When Ross Perot relaunched his third-party bid during the 1992 Democratic convention, one Vermont delegate summarized the presidential race to me as “scrambled eggs all over again.”
These were the days before the Democrats’ virtual effort last week, which, as I said, was moving and inspiring. And I’m all for informing the electorate about the candidates, especially in this good-versus-racist evil election year. But conventions are hardly the vehicle of that education. Moreover, if there’s a constitutional mandate to entertain the sliver of the population that is political junkies every four years, I missed it.
Conventions used to receive even more public subsidies until Obama, bless him, signed legislation ending that gravy train. This year, a tragic pandemic forced convention-goers to shelter in place and do their business on computer screens. Their and press grumblings aside, the world has continued to spin. Going the full monty and stripping away the last vestiges of this relic won’t disturb planetary motion either.
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