Not what they used to be
What did I miss while I was away? Ah, yes, the Republican National Convention. I hear the Republicans nominated Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan for president and vice president. Imagine that.
In truth, I didn’t miss the convention entirely. I watched it the way I suspect most nonpolitical junkies did. I peeked in when the big networks were showing it, tuning into the handful of speeches I was most interested in: Ann Romney’s, Chris Christie’s, Paul Ryan’s and, of course, Mitt Romney’s. Expecting a gauzy, uplifting video before Romney’s speech, I got Clint Eastwood instead. It was an unexpected bonus.
As usual, journalists vastly outnumbered the delegates. As usual, the thing was so finely scripted, Eastwood aside, that there wasn’t a whole lot of genuine news to report. As Jeremy Peters put it in The Times, “Today’s media labor to enliven coverage of what typically are endless hours of preordained events.” The decision by the major networks to cut back coverage to an hour a night is not irrational.
It’s not that we didn’t learn anything. I, for one, saw with my own eyes that Paul Ryan, whom I had viewed as a wrongheaded but essentially honorable conservative, was willing to turn his back on his supposedly courageous positions the minute his own ambition was at stake. Mea culpa.
On the other hand, from the moment Romney picked him as his vice-presidential candidate, Ryan began displaying that side of himself. And I wound up thinking, do we really need three days and nights (and it would have been four if not for the hurricane threat) for the Republicans to “frame” their “narrative” and “humanize” their candidate? I think not. We certainly don’t need taxpayers to be footing the bill. This year, each convention is costing the government $18 million and change — plus another $50 million in taxpayer-financed security. I heard the security was really tight.
There is a reason journalists began flocking to conventions once upon a time. Up until 1960, they were the exact opposite of what they are now. Rather than an exercise in public relations, they were essentially a huge fight, with cajoling and horse-trading and balloting that could go on into the wee hours. Conventions, not primaries, were the process by which the parties selected their nominees for president and vice president.
Here was Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, winning the nomination on the fourth ballot in a tense all-night session. Here was his opponent in 1940, Wendell Willkie, winning the Republican nomination in dramatic fashion on the sixth ballot. Here was Adlai Stevenson in 1956 deciding to let the convention choose between two senators, John F. Kennedy and Estes Kefauver, as his vice-presidential candidate.
“It kept going back and forth,” recalls Charlie Peters, the founding editor of The Washington Monthly. “It was very exciting.”
Henry Brady, the dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley — and an expert on political conventions — says that he thinks the last truly meaningful convention was 1968.
“There was still a sense that the convention was a decision-making body,” he said.
Indeed, that convention chose Vice President Hubert Humphrey as its nominee — even though he hadn’t entered any primaries and even though Eugene McCarthy, the anti-war candidate, had done well in the primaries. In the aftermath of that debacle, the Democrats established a special commission, which shifted the rules so that primaries became the essential way to collect delegates and win the nomination. One of the co-chairmen of that commission, George McGovern, then used the new rules to win his party’s nomination in 1972.
One ought not get too misty-eyed about the old-style conventions, with their handful of power brokers pulling the strings. The convention system gave us Franklin Roosevelt — and also Herbert Hoover. The primary system has also given us our share of good presidents (Ronald Reagan) and bad ones (George W. Bush).
On the other hand, old-style conventions, for all their flaws, demanded compromise that is essential for governing. Nor were the party bosses willing to throw their weight behind candidates who were too far outside the mainstream.
The primary system has allowed the two parties to be captured by their more extreme elements. Compromise is now a dirty word. Centrism is for losers. Conventions now enforce the views of the hard-liners.
“The real problem is that you have voters who are really intense — and you are not going to capture them with your convention,” said Brady. “And the voters who are less intense, the undecideds, are probably not watching.”
Now it is the Democrats’ turn. They, too, will spend $68 million or so throwing their three-day party, framing their narrative, positioning the president as the man to lead us out of our doldrums.
I’ll be watching — on television.
Joe Nocera is a columnist for The New York Times.