POLITICS AUGUST 18, 2008
Convention season is upon us. There will be clichés, giant flags, funny hats--and much, much whining about how these party-themed infomercials aren’t worth our time. But are there ways in which we could genuinely improve the content of the conventions? We asked a few friends of the magazine to offer their suggestions.
James Galbraith, professor of economics and government at the University of Texas and author of The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too
Twenty years ago, I encountered in the halls of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs my elderly colleague Emmette Redford, President Johnson's boyhood friend and distinguished administrative historian. Emmette asked if I was planning to attend that year's Democratic convention. I said no, I had already attended one interesting convention, in 1968.
"I know what you mean," he replied, "I also attended one interesting convention. In 1928."
I had in fact attended three Democratic conventions by then. The first was in Chicago, where I managed to be in Grant Park the night the police beat up everyone in Lincoln Park. The next night I was at the hall, to watch my father second the nomination of Eugene McCarthy, and to march back by candlelight, after they beat up everyone in Grant Park. The following morning, my father extracted me from the Chicago Hilton; that evening, the police raided my room on the McCarthy floor, and beat up everyone there.
Needless to say, that convention was a disaster for the Democratic Party.
In 1972, having just cast my first vote, I was an alternate delegate from Massachusetts to the great meeting in Miami Beach, a marvel of procedural struggle, late-into-the-night political discipline and popular democracy. Or so we who were there thought. The rest of the country was not impressed; apparently they wanted their television show over by midnight, thank you very much. Richard Reeves later wrote that the regulars couldn't tell people like the Galbraith brothers from hippies because we dressed the same way, but this was an outrageous invention. I had a suit on, every day.
Needless to say, that convention was a disaster for the Democratic Party.
1976 in New York was the last convention I went to, and while it had moments of drama--“Ron Kovic's great speech, "Born on the Fourth of July"--nothing important happened. Mo Udall, great and gracious, ceded the nomination to Jimmy Carter and the McGovern and Johnson wings of the party reconciled, briefly. That convention was a success.
All those since have just been television shows, scripted, fake, and boring, the American political equivalent of Olympic opening ceremonies, without the panache. And so when the editors of TNR asked for 500 words on how to improve them, I offered just two. Tear gas.
But I have a serious suggestion also.
As a McGovern Democrat at the Johnson School, I have a special respect for these two great non-persons of modern Party history. Lyndon Baines Johnson, born one hundred years ago, the greatest civil rights president since Lincoln, was airbrushed from official memory because of the Vietnam War. George McGovern, bomber pilot, was written out of the record because of his opposition to that same war.
And yet the Democratic Party today is the product of these two men: of Johnson's heroic stand on race, and of McGovern's heroic stand for peace.
It would be an act of decency, of honesty, and of probity to celebrate them both, this year.
Ed Kilgore, managing editor of The Democratic Strategist
This year's Republican and (especially) Democratic conventions are likely to have some novel touches, particularly in the deployment of new technologies that make it easier for citizens to follow and gain a sense of participation in the proceedings. Indeed, between streaming video and social media like YouTube, the number of people who watch, live or nearly-live, significant portions of the Democratic convention is likely to increase substantially for the first time in years, despite very limited network television coverage. And it's worth noting that Barack Obama's acceptance speech will likely be one of the most widely watched, read, and generally observed political speeches in history.
But looking forward to future conventions, it's now obvious that significant changes will require a long-overdue and fundamental rethinking of the form and function of the national party convention.
With the virtual extinction of the original deliberative function of conventions (this year's controversy over unpledged Democratic "superdelegates" will probably produce "reforms" reducing the probability of an "open convention" to near zero), these events really have just two major functions: strengthening party unity and enthusiasm, and framing the message (including the candidate's personal "story") for the presidential campaign. These remain important responsibilities, despite the quadrennial grousing among journalists and many activists that conventions no longer make news or offer "excitement" or "spontaneity."
But if you were going to develop from the ground up an event to achieve these two objectives, would anyone conclude that the best available vehicle was four days mainly characterized by hundreds of politicians making speeches from a podium? Okay, a few "real people" or non-political celebrities now get stage-time, and the occasional politician gets to do a podium-free "stroll," and there are even videos shown now and then. But the basic model for conventions remains the annual state party fundraising dinner, those Jefferson-Jackson and Lincoln Day marathons featuring a couple of big speeches and many short remarks by a lot of politicians, to burnish the Cause's unity and diversity while paying some bills.
There's nothing wrong with speechifying, though the message discipline associated with today's conventions wrings a lot of the color and all of the unpredictability out of hearing from a wide array of candidates and elected officials from Maine to Alaska. But if speeches were the best or only way to convey a political message, campaign ads would consist of nothing else; candidates would never do another town hall meeting or photo op; and debates would end with the opening statements.
It's worth noting that successful political and non-political conferences typically include panel discussions, sessions on specialized topics, and workshops that provide opportunities for more customized presentations. Sacrificing a hundred or so set speeches on the same general party and campaign message to provide for diverse voices on diverse topics would be a small price to pay.
Moreover, even if conventions could be staged to provide the perfect message delivery system, American politics is--thank God--rapidly becoming more interactive, just like the technologies that are changing media coverage, advertising, fundraising, and organizing. So, there's no reason future conventions shouldn't follow the pattern of giving citizens constant opportunities to become participants in, not simply consumers of, these party-defining and candidate-defining events. A small straw in the wind is the plan to enlist many of the 75,000 people standing in line for Obama's acceptance speech next week to make cell phone calls to unregistered or undecided voters. Integrating grassroots party-building and voter persuasion efforts--long an ancillary activity at conventions--into the convention itself could be far more fruitful than redundant message delivery via speeches. And once the mould is broken, there's almost no limit to the interactivity that could be introduced to convention proceedings through online forums, Q&A sessions, state and local "virtual" mini-conventions, and other techniques. It's all about rethinking the basic form and function of these events.
As I write these words, I am preparing to work in the speech/script operation for my sixth consecutive Democratic Convention. After each of the last five, convention professionals invariably said to each other: "Well, that's the last time we'll do this kind of convention!" But this time, I think that may finally be true.
William Galston, former policy advisor to Bill Clinton and current senior fellow at the Brookings Institution
Since the creation of the primary and caucus-based presidential nominating process, national party conventions have lost much of their point. Occasionally, as in the 1976 battle for the Republican nomination, the primaries and caucuses leave the candidates separated by a narrow and possibly fluid margin, giving weight to the thrust and parry of convention tactics. Of course, the presidential nominee could choose to throw open the vice presidential choice. This last happened in 1956, adding meaning and drama to what would otherwise have been a routine renominating exercise while providing an early demonstration of John F. Kennedy's potential appeal as a national candidate. Absent one of these scenarios, national conventions are largely reduced to exercises in stagecraft, consigning experts to ponder the significance of Senator X rather than Governor Y as keynote speaker.This is not to say that modern conventions are entirely useless. The winning team can use prized speaking slots to bind up lingering wounds from the primaries and to showcase rising stars. Informal encounters, planned and spontaneous, can help build intra-party social capital. A substantial audience will watch the nominee's nationally televised acceptance speech, which typically forces him to think through, and reveal, the contours of his general election campaign.
Quite possibly this is the best we can do, given the rules of the modern party system. Still, it's worthwhile to think about possible improvements, even at the margins. Here's one: The public always claims to be hungry for user-friendly information about what candidates and parties stand for ... so, why don't we allocate primetime slots at each convention to a reasonably detailed presentation of the party platform? Immediately afterward, the networks would feature panels of experts discussing the basis, significance, and feasibility of its principal proposals. Not only could this proposal help create a somewhat better informed electorate, but it would also force the parties to take their platforms more seriously. Concessions to organized interests now made in coded language that few notice or understand could be exposed to national scrutiny, and historically informed commentators could highlight subtle but significant shifts in long-held positions.
No doubt the audience would be modest by the standards of national television, and the short-term effects would be hard to measure. Nonetheless, this kind of discussion could help boost public trust in our national politics, now near historic lows. We could do worse, and probably will.
By James Galbraith, William Galston, and Ed Kilgore