Political Conventions a “Dying Institution,” DePauw’s Ken Bode Writes

Originally posted: July 16, 2004

There are two reasons why you should watch the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Boston. First, it won’t require much of your time. The networks have sensibly decided to limit their coverage to one hour on three of the four nights.

A few years back I served on a national commission on presidential nominating conventions, a group made up primarily of representatives of the two parties and the media, print and broadcast. “Why aren’t we getting our full four nights of prime time?” complained one party official. “Because you have managed to wring everything newsworthy out of the conventions,” was the answer.

Conventions are a dying institution, entirely ceremonial, studded with promotional videos, patriotic music, and entertainment acts.

Once important and vibrant national institutions, nominating conventions have dissolved into public relations vehicles, with controversy and suspense deemed undesirable. We have known since February that John Kerry would be nominated, the vice presidential candidate has been named and the platform is crafted strictly to the prescriptions of the nominee.

Delegate challenges, once part of the rough and tumble of conventions, could decide the presidential nomination, as they did for Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. Or, as in 1964 with the Mississippi Freedom Democrats, they could set the party in a new direction on civil rights. Meaningful credentials challenges are now part of history.

Adopting a platform was long considered the second most important function of a convention, and there were titanic battles over important issues: the Ku Klux Klan, prohibition and abortion. In 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, raging debate over the peace plank divided the Democratic convention and, incidentally, kept the TV audience riveted.

There will be no serious platform challenges at either convention this year. In fact, it is a safe bet there will not be a single minority report in Boston or New York, none that you will see on television. Once there were even floor fights and second ballots over the vice presidency. Now, of course, the tradition is to get that mystery out of the way early.

It all began to change when the Democrats abandoned their rule requiring a two-thirds majority for the nomination. Then followed the reforms that produced binding primaries and all but eliminated favorite sons. Any notion of a brokered convention is now a fantasy in the mind of a wishful political reporter.

In 1972, an enterprising scribe covering the GOP convention where Richard Nixon was re-nominated found himself in possession of a top-secret convention schedule. It was a minute-by-minute script, tailored to television, even with pauses for applause. Then considered an appalling idea, rigidly scripted conventions are now the norm.

So, in 2004 about the only compelling news remaining is who will have speaking roles at each convention. Arnold Schwarzenegger will get prime time for the GOP; for the Democrats, Hillary Clinton will get no podium time at all.

The most interesting cameo appearance in Boston will be that of Ron Reagan. The namesake secured his speaking role by noting at the funeral of his father that the former president had “never worn his faith on his sleeve to gain political advantage.” Democratic planners decided that such a delicious slap at George W. Bush deserved more attention. But even Reagan junior will not be on prime time.

Seeing Homeland Security boss Tom Ridge in Boston showing Mayor Tom Menino a new bomb disposal robot suggests that security may be the biggest story at both conventions. It is also a reminder that as governor of Pennsylvania and host of the 2000 GOP convention, Ridge was denied a speaking role. He was pro-choice, therefore insufficiently orthodox.

Even before the conventions became rubber stamps, the green eye shades in network accounting offices noticed that independent channels showing old movies were getting better ratings. So as the parties neutered their conventions, eliminating all suspense, controversy and news; the networks, understandably, shrank their coverage.

The second reason you may want to watch the conventions is that you are paying for them. In 1974, as part of its post-Watergate election reform, Congress created a fund to underwrite the conventions with an escalator clause to cover inflation. What began as a $4 million federal subsidy now exceeds $15 million for each party. It is time to sunset this pension.

Ken Bode, a former CNN political analyst, is Pulliam Professor of Journalism at DePauw University

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