Fix America’s Political Party Conventions By Making Them Much Shorter
The quadrennial political conventions have become, long, boring, tedious, and largely predetermined. It's time to shake things up by making them a lot shorter.
In a week’s time, Republicans from around the nation, reporters, and several bloggers I know personally (no, not me) will be heading to Tampa for the 40th Republican National Convention. A week later, many of those same reporters and bloggers will join Democrats around the nation for the 46th Democratic National Convention. Aside from the speeches by party up and comers like Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Elizabeth Warren, and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, and of course the parties, there really will be nothing interesting going on in either convention hall. We already know that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan will be the Republican nominees for President and Vice-President and that Barack Obama and Joe Biden will be the Democratic nominees. Indeed, as David Frum points out at The Daily Beast today, it’s been a long time since any American political convention has been the least bit interesting:
At an American conference, nothing much happens until late afternoon. The days are given over to private meetings at coffee shops—and of course the most demanding task: nursing hangovers from the night before.
U.S. political conventions are big, expensive, corrupting wastes of time. But they could be saved and made useful again with one simple reform.
Conventions used to have a purpose: choose the party’s candidates for president and vice president. But the last convention at which there was any uncertainty at all was the Republican convention of 1976. The last convention where any decision making took place was the 1960 Democratic convention. The last convention to go beyond a single ballot: the Democratic convention of 1952.
Today, conventions ratify decisions made long ago and in other places. That makes for boring television, so the cameras go searching for other things to cover: gaffes, mistakes, disagreements. The politicians in control of the conventions respond to the gaffe hunt by imposing ever stricter control on every aspect of the show—making the show even more boring and pointless.
Increasingly, the real action moves off-site, to the lavish parties and receptions paid for by big corporate donors: cruises, cigar nights, martini mixers. Nobody pays for a thousand expensive cigars without expecting something in return—and checking whether he gets it.
This isn’t just a matter of making television more interesting the last two weeks of August every four years. As I noted back in May, through the Presidential Election Campaign Fund, the Federal Government gives both major political parties, and only those political parties, up to $30 million each every four years to offset some of the costs of staging them the convention (although not all of them, hence the massive corporate and lobbyist donations to both parties.) In addition to that, Federal, State, and local authorities also pick up a large portion of the costs of providing security for the the events, something which I obviously do not begrudge. There’s also a rather obvious public interest in the potentially corrupting influence of accepting large amounts of corporate money and swag to finance what is, in the end, little more than a four day Bacchanalia festival.
This is part of the reason that you’ve seen most of the broadcast networks cut back on their coverage of political conventions. I remember watching the Republican and Democratic conventions in 1980, the days before cable news, and all three major networks essentially had gavel to gavel coverage of every night of the conventions. They broadcast all the speeches and, in some cases, even some of the meaningless procedural things that go on at these events. Even by 1980, though, there were very few truly memorable events going on that rivaled what occurred at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, or the 1972 Democratic Convention, which seemed to just make the disaster that would be the George McGovern campaign inevitable. Eventually, the networks caught on to the fact that they were essentially giving the political parties free television time for four nights in a row and began to cut back on their coverage on nights other than those involving nomination of the candidates and the candidates speeches. In recent years, some nights have merited only a single hour of coverage on the broadcast networks. Cable news networks have picked up the slack somewhat, but even there you’re going to see producers switching away from convention coverage to in-studio talking heads when their isn’t anything particularly interesting going on. The people who really want to watch gavel-to-gavel coverage, of course, always have C-Span, but for the most part viewership of the convention coverage has been declining steadily over the years.
With all of this in mind, Frum has this proposal:
Thus my proposed reform: split the conventions in two. In a presidential year, cut the proceedings to a one-day show—three hours of prime-time television for speeches by the presidential nominee, the vice-presidential nominee, and a keynoter, supported by public funds.
Then, the next year, the first year after a presidential election, let the parties run their own shows.
At such a distance from the next presidential vote, TV interest will be slight. C-Span will come, but otherwise, the proceedings will happen off-camera. Which means that the parties can relax their control and allow real discussion of real issues, as happens at party conferences in other democracies.
Frum bases this proposal on his experience attending a British party convention, where the political activities are limited to a day or two and the rest of the time is spent talking policy issues and putting together a governing platform. The difference, of course, is that political parties serve a different role in Parliamentary democracies than they do in the United States. Moreover, it’s worth remembering that the RNC and DNC are merely the national umbrella organizations for a 50-state coalition of party organizations, each of which have their own conventions on an annual or semi-annual basis. I’m not sure what the purpose of the additional “post-Presidential” convention would really be, especially if it’s being held by the party that won the Presidency the previous year. In that case, all the policy making is being made in the White House.
Nonetheless, Frum is on to something with regard to shortening these typically uninteresting wastes of time. Get rid of the pagentry. Get rid of the unnecessary speakers. Make it, at most a two-day event featuring the nominees and a keynote speaker representing the future of the party. Most importantly, get rid of the Federal subsidies through the PECF. These conventions are decided long before the open, and become pretty tedious once they start. It’s time to make them a lot shorter.