Conventions and the Power of Inertia

In what may be the only moment I agree with a “Republican strategist” this week, I endorse Mike Murphy’s complaint at Time‘s Swampland:

Remind me: Why are we doing this?

That was the question bouncing around in my head after I spent my first 24 hours in Tampa on increasingly soggy ground. The twin horrors of Tropical Storm Isaac and the Nielsen ratings have already combined to wipe out Monday night’s planned activities, and you know what? Nobody cares.

Political conventions are over. Once, they meant something. I’d leap into the most terrifying of time machines to attend an old-school political convention with armies of local pols battling it out under a thick cloud of blue tobacco smoke in a stuffy convention hall, while the string-pulling bosses cut pragmatic deals over whiskey and judicial appointments in lavish hotel suites. Those conventions had drama because outcomes were unknown and stakes were high. Today delegates are bound through the application of TV-ad-ratings points, not machine deals. Delegates sit in the hall like background actors on a TV show, milling about to the director’s orders, wearing costumes and being denied a single line. It seems like a shabby ending to a great tradition. It’s time for a mercy killing.

Murphy doesn’t mention the role of conventions as major fundraising (as well as fund-spending!) venues, or the atavistic willingness of news organizations to send people to “cover” the non-events. But still, he’s asking the obvious question, and the slightly less obvious answer is this: we still have national political conventions for the same reason we still empower a handful of states to exert enormous power over presidential nominations–inertia. Someone, presumably a sitting president, would have to expend the political capital necessary to put these traditions to sleep. And when the brief window of opportunity comes to do so, there’s always something more valuable on which to spend that political capital.

So change comes slowly, if at all. Conventions stopped being deliberative decades ago. Gavel-to-gavel coverage by major networks is a distant, fading memory. The decision to bag today’s Republican Convention schedule may have been necessitated by the possibility of a weather disaster, but it was lubricated by the earlier decision of broadcast networks to forego live coverage entirely for Day One. Tampa is awash with journalists trying to find something interesting to write or talk about, in a pitched battle with party operatives trying to keep the whole show as boring as possible until the Big Chiefs get their unfiltered opportunity to address a Super-Prime-Time audience. I am very happy not to be there.

Eventually, we’ll have “conventions” that are nothing of the sort, but are simply large-venue speeches by the presidential ticket, ethnically and ideologically appropriate validators, and a few “real people.” For Republicans, they’ll offer far less revealing glimpses of the reigning conservative id than the annual CPAC confab in Washington (Democrats do not have an equivalent single defining event, but might well develop one if there is a Romney-Ryan administration). It’s possible we could lurch on for a long time calling these truncated hoedowns “national political conventions” before the tradition finally gives up the ghost. But as Murphy suggests, you’d really have to climb into a time machine to experience why these quadrennial gatherings originally existed and what they used to accomplish.

Every four years I re-read Robert K. Murray’s wonderful account of the 1924 Democratic Convention, The 103d Ballot, and give conventions as they used to exist their fair due. But it’s probably time to consign them to history.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.