Wednesday, February 06, 2008

A Plea for the Nominating Conventions

WITH SUPER DUPER TUESDAY PAST (and with it, my mental association of that neologism with a blowout sale at an automall), it's time to look forward, past the remaining knife fights among the candidates, to the nominating conventions. There has been chatter from the media about whether there might be one or two "brokered conventions."

I think the only reason we hear this discussion is because we've become accustomed to highly stage-managed coronations every four summers, rather than the rollicking, messy spectacles of past election years. The 2004 conventions were particularly scripted, with an incumbent Republican and a Democrat who had sewn up the nomination early in the cycle. All that remained was a parade of party bigwigs to say the more extreme things the candidates themselves wouldn't even dream of uttering, for fear of driving off independent voters with longer-than-average memories. As for the scene outside, the aggressive suppression of protesters in New York, and the herding of demonstrators in Boston into "free speech zones" (an odious term in a putative democracy), shows how little the parties wanted outside events to influence their royal weddings. (Returning that sentiment, I spent most of the week during the Republican occupation of New York in New Jersey.)

I think the bigwigs in the party hierarchy, particularly those of a certain vintage among the Democratic leadership, have a permanent scar on their memories: the 1968 Democratic Convention. Antiwar protests in the streets, widespread cynicism after the presumptive leader was assassinated, and the effective abdication of the incumbent. Add the fact that it was set in a city controlled by the Daley machine, where that mayor was so confident that he'd be able to dominate the proceedings that he got away with calling Senator Abe Ribicoff a "Jew motherfucker" on the convention floor.

Then there was the deathmarch of the 1972 Democratic Convention, extensively covered in Hunter S. Thompson's epic Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72. Four years after the Chicago debacle, the waning Democratic machine hacks teamed up with organized labor to oppose the upstart McGovern forces from representing the party against a seemingly vulnerable Nixon. Intricate parliamentary tactics were necessary to gauge just how much of a chance the McGovern leadership had of capturing a nomination on the first ballot. Then there was a classic back-room scrum to choose a vice presidental candidate, which gave way to the disastrous "Eagleton affair," in which McGovern was obliged to distance himself from a vice-presidential designate who hid a past of alcoholism and electroshock from the very folks who put him on the ticket.

There has to be some middle ground between the prom nights the conventions have become, and the all-out fixer-vs.-fatcat fistfights they once were. Surely the networks would prefer the former. If they know they can cut away from speakers of lesser interest, or that the whole shebang will wrap in time for a late news segment, they don't have to worry about losing ratings or getting mail from cranks who miss their regular programming. Popular voting for primary candidates and delegates should be easy for us all, but choosing a nominee and a platform ought to be deliberate, public, and done with the country's best interests in mind . . . not by settling scores or attacking the other party through endless nomination speeches. I suspect this is too much for the current cultural attention span.

As a sidelight, I am glad the early bunching of primaries yesterday didn't produce a clear frontrunner in either party. Despite McCain's wins, Huckabee isn't letting go. And Clinton's people issued a tacit admission that they haven't won yet when they mentioned they'd like to debate Obama four more times before the convention. If we entered the summer with a mass of uncommitted delegates and no clear media projection of who might emerge to lead the parties into November, I couldn't be happier.

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