Monday, April 7, 2008

The World's Most Expensive Pep Rally

The fictional brokered convention scenario got me thinking about something that's been bothering me for a while: what, exactly, is the point of the Democratic and Republican National Conventions?

Nominally, the conventions have three goals:

  1. To nominate a party's candidate for president;
  2. To nominate a party's candidate for vice-president; and
  3. To adopt the party's platform

In reality, the party's platform is worked out months in advance by members of the respective parties' Platform Committees, and are ratified by the conventions as more or less a formality. For the most part, all people care about when paying attention to the conventions (to the extent that anyone actually does pay attention...) is the nomination of the parties' tickets, which brings me to my second question: What is the problem with having the primary campaign actually last up until the convention?

Clearly, this year, this question applies to Democrats rather than Republicans, but it hasn't actually been an issue in decades for either party. The last GOP nomination to be decided at the Convention was in 1976 (Gerald Ford over Ronald Reagan), while for the Democrats, it was in 1980 (Jimmy Carter over Ted Kennedy). Even these nominations, however bitterly contested, were still settled on the first ballot of the convention. To find a truly contested convention in which there wasn't a clear front-runner, we have to go back roughly twice as far, to 1952 for Democrats (Gov. Adlai Stevenson defeated Senators Estes Kefauver and Richard Russell, and former Commerce Secretary and Ambassador Averell Harriman on the third ballot), and 1948 for Republicans (Gov. Thomas Dewey defeated Governors Harold Stassen and Earl Warren, Senators Robert Taft and Arthur Vandenberg, Rep. Joseph Martin, and General Douglas MacArthur on the third ballot).

The possibility of the Democratic nominee remaining unclear until late August, however, has left many Democrats apoplectic, and Republicans giddy, over the potential for four more months of internecine Democratic fighting.

This crisis has been deemed so important that both Howard Dean and Harry Reid have called for the process to somehow resolve itself by July 1st, to keep it from harming the Democrats chances in November. Yet short of either candidate voluntarily dropping out by then, its unclear how, if at all, party leaders could actually enforce this deadline. Rather, there are no signs of, or suggestions for, Obama leaving the race, and Hillary has explicitly said that she is willing to stay in until Denver, declaring

"I know that there are some people who want to shut this down and I think they are wrong. I have no intention of stopping until we finish what we started and until we see what happens in the next 10 contests and until we resolve Florida and Michigan. And if we don't resolve it, we'll resolve it at the convention."
The only concrete idea for forcing an earlier end to the primary is Tennessee Gov. Philip Bredesen's call for a “superdelegates’ primary” in June or July, pushed most prominently in this NY Times Op-Ed. Bredesen writes:

“In early june, after the final primaries, the Democratic National Committee should call together our superdelegates in a public caucus.

“There will have been more than 20 debates, and more than 28 million Americans will have made their choices and voted. Any remaining uncertainty in our nominee will then lie with the superdelegates, and it will be time for us to make our choices and get on with the business of electing a president.

“This is not a proposal for a mini-convention with all the attendant hoopla and sideshows. It is a call for a tight, two-day business-like gathering, whose rules would be devised by the national committee, of the leaders of our party from all over America to resolve a serious problem. There would be a final opportunity for the candidates to make their arguments to those delegates, and then one transparent vote… This is a business meeting of a few hundred people almost three months from now, not an extended cast-of-thousands convention.”

My problem with all of this is simple – aren’t these calls for an earlier decision by superdelegates really just an argument for moving the convention up? What is the point of having a convention at the end of August, if the party’s leaders seem united in consensus that we need a nominee by July?

Gov. Bredesen’s description of his plan really highlights the absurdity of this. While he declares that this isn’t a proposal for a mini-convention, there seems to be little difference. Breaking it down, he suggests:

  1. “A tight two-day business-like gathering,” – as opposed to the four-day Democratic National Convention;
  2. “whose rules would be devised by the national committee” – as the Democratic National Convention’s are;
  3. “of the leaders of our party from all over America” – such as the delegates who will be attending the Democratic National Convention;
  4. “to resolve a serious problem” – choosing the party’s presidential and vice-presidential tickets, which is the purpose of the Democratic National Convention;
  5. “There would be a final opportunity for the candidates to make their arguments to those delegates” – because clearly during the four-day Democratic National Convention, there’s no time for the candidates to speak;
  6. “and then one transparent vote” – which is exactly what happens on the final day of the Democratic National Convention.

So if we are now saying that this absolutely must be done in June or July, what is the point of the convention itself? The party’s platform will be written in advance, and it is apparently no longer necessary to hold a convention to choose the nominee. We’ve just removed all rational for holding a convention in the first place. If we insist that the nominee be chosen months earlier, the convention is just an elaborate coronation ceremony, costing the government and party tens of millions of dollars. All we are left with is what Bredesen refers to as “all the attendant hoopla and sideshows” that accompany the “extended cast-of-thousands convention.”

I'm fully in favor of holding the convention earlier in the summer if the party thinks that an extended general election is beneficial, but divorcing the end of the nominating process from the convention is a mistake. At that point, the convention is just an opportunity for special interest groups, party leaders and politicians to waste millions of dollars wining and dining themselves. Somehow that just doesn't seem necessary.Thus has the Democratic Party rendered its national conventions the world’s most expensive and pointless pep rally.

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