Political Hay

Conventional Wisdom

Are they obsolete?

By 8.25.08

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Conventions: They ain't what they used to be. And in Dick Rosenbaum's opinion, that's too darn bad. He should know; he was Chairman of the Rules Committee during the GOP convention of 1976.

"Conventions are relevant, but they're not very relevant," Rosenbaum, author of No Room For Democracy: The Triumph of Ego Over Common Sense told TAS in a phone interview. Like a lot of folks who were active in politics in those days, Rosenbaum can hardly keep the stories to himself. They remind him of what used to be. And of what he's missing now.

One month before the 1976 convention, Nelson Rockefeller, the Vice President under Gerald Ford at the time, wrote Rosenbaum a three-page letter voicing his concerns about the selection of the Vice Presidential candidate at the upcoming convention. The letter signaled a shift in convention operations.

Reagan had just chosen Senator Richard Schweiker to be his running mate, a bold, and some thought, an unwise move, because of his Schweiker's liberal reputation. As predicted, some delegates changed their votes to Ford after hearing about Reagan's choice.

Party activists tried to convince Rosenbaum and others to change the convention rules to force Ford to announce his Vice Presidential choice before the presidential roll call vote like Reagan had. "Rockefeller was much opposed to that," Rosenbaum recalled from the letter. Ultimately, the resolution to keep the rules the same prevailed and Ford won the nomination in a close vote.

"As primaries have proliferated the nominees are obvious before they get there so conventions have lost a lot of their meaning. What they really have become is cheerleading sessions. There's no contest any more. I liked it more with the fight," Rosenbaum said..

THOSE ARE THE days that were. Now: Since presidential nominees have largely been assumed at national political conventions for some 30 years, it's hardly a new concept to question the relevance of such conventions.

But this year, the price tag is significantly higher, so the ante is upped, and the questions are too. Certainly, if a Presidential election is the Super Bowl of politics, then the Democratic and Republican National Conventions are very expensive and predictable tailgating parties. Both Denver and St. Paul, the sites of the Democratic and Republican National conventions received a $50 million federal grant for security; along with $16.8 and $16.3 million in federal grants, respectively, for planning and execution.

There are 6,430 delegates total, attending both conventions. That's about $20,699.84 in taxpayer dollars per delegate. On top of this, Host Committees will have raised $40-58 million in private funds.

Indeed, national political conventions have changed a lot since the 1952 Democratic National Convention when it took three ballots to nominate Governor Adlai Stevenson of Illinois. Now, with no financial limits, the Democratic National Convention Host Committee has concerned itself with such important details such as mandating all eating utensils be recyclable, fried foods be absent and the food (which should be local or organic) be "at least three of the following five colors: red, green, yellow, blue/purple, and white."

This year, journalists hoped in vane for a brokered, or contested convention. Even the possibility of reporting an actual floor fight sounds more like the glory days than discussing food regulations.

Still, Dr. Angela Ledford, an associate professor of political science at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York, believes a bit of a history perspective might prove useful for hopeless, convention-romantics.

"Sure, the conventions were there to choose the nominee for the respective parties, but it was also a very elitist institution....It used to be real party elites, almost all men....Party platforms were being crafted and deals were being made in arguably a very unDemocratic way. This wasn't 'People Power,' this was elite, political party power," Ledford said.

While the nominee may be determined in a bit more democratic way than in the mid-20th century, David Johnson, a Republican strategist and CEO of Strategic Vision based in Atlanta, Georgia, believes the difference in conventions between past and present hurts the voters more than anything and the media has played an important role in that transition.

"Now: Everything is ironed out before hand because they know the media will be covering it. They don't want to highlight the differences. Everything is vanilla now. [Conventions] have become the political version of reality TV," Johnson lamented.

HOWEVER, DESPITE THE way conventions have strayed from their original purposes, many believe nominating conventions are still important. They provide the candidate with a bump in his poll numbers, a vehicle through which to communicate to a large audience and they act as one large, political pep rally, energizing the base and communicating their message to millions of voters watching across the country.

Jim Lehrer, host of PBS's popular NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, attended his first convention in 1968 and agrees while they are very different in terms of purpose, they are the same in terms of impact.

"[The convention] catches the attention of the decided and undecided voter: It affirms, it confirms and it firms," Lehrer explained. "So it's there for everybody. If you're already a big Democrat or Republican you want to see what your people are up to. Can they articulate the message? How do they do it?"

While the convention costs to the taxpayer are extravagant, and the original intent is obsolete, many believe this high tech tailgating party still serves an important role in Presidential politics.

David Mercer, Democratic Strategist and President of Mercer and Associates summarized the ideal modern convention like so: "[You] get party business done, celebrate together, you raise the enthusiasm and the excitement and you establish a marker in the mindset of the American people to capture their imagination that will thrust you forward and that will launch you into the general election."

Of course, that's the one that really matters.

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About the Author

Nicole Russell writes from Northern Virginia.