How I Would Improve The Conventions

by William Galston | August 18, 2008

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.  

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