The Dumb Convention No-Show Meme

Both Republicans and some MSM purveyors of a snail’s-eye-view have been richly enjoying the drip-drip-drip of “stories” about this or that Democratic pol in a highly competitive race deciding to skip the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. You’d think this statement by the chair of the Democratic House campaign operation would put to rest claims that party members are shocked and terrified by the prospect of convening without Joe Manchin or Jim Matheson:

The man responsible for getting Democrats elected to the Congress this fall has a message for his party’s candidates: Stay away from the Democratic National Convention in September.

“If they want to win an election, they need to be in their districts,” New York congressman Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told the Reuters Washington Summit on Tuesday.

Israel emphasized that Democratic President Barack Obama’s poll ratings – which have hovered around 50 percent – have little to do with his stance.

“I don’t care if the president was at 122 percent favorability right now,” he said. “I think (candidates) should be in their districts,” rather than spend time at the convention, which will be in Charlotte, North Carolina, September 3-6.

“A trip to Charlotte may be interesting,” Israel said, “but why leave your districts?”

Why indeed?

Look, don’t get me wrong: I love national party conventions, God help me. I’ve been to six of the suckers myself, and have watched as much as I could of both parties’ conventions since 1964. Hell, there are years when it was about the only thing I watched on TV, other than election night coverage itself and University of Georgia football games.

But let’s face it: national conventions lost their deliberative functions long ago. The last multi-ballot affair was in 1952, long before the advent of the modern primary system. The last convention where there was any doubt after the opening gavel about the identity of the nominee was in 1976, and that was only because of a miraculously close primary finish between Reagan and Ford. The last time there was any serious convention maneuvering over the platform was in 1980, when the Carter forces blithely caved to a full-employment plank designed to embarrass the president.

Yes, conventions serve various significant purposes. Despite ever-shrinking broadcast TV coverage, they remain a well-timed opportunity for message delivery. Small numbers of super-prime time speakers get the chance to make a big impression, like Barack Obama did in 2004. All sorts of behind-the-scenes meetings take place involving fundraising and GOTV preparations. But for most participants, these events are primarily social. For a junior congressional candidate in a tough race, it’s time better spent either on the hustings or dialing for dollars–much better than appearing on CSPAN for a mid-afternoon speech mouthing the work-that-works-for-working-families pieties allowed by the presidential campaign staff that control every moment (which can get weird, viz. the famous 2004 last-minute edict of the Kerry campaign, based on focus group sessions with battleground-state independents, that no convention speakers bash the opposing party).

So let’s give the no-show meme a rest, folks. It’s news about nothing from nowhere.

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.