Whenever the two major political parties gather to choose presidential nominees, two conventions take place: the one in the hall and the other on television. There used to be a third, a theatrical sideshow that packed the emotional punch the other two lacked. It occurred on the streets outside the arenas but in full view, when necessary, of TV cameras. Today, for security reasons, the party brass says, protesters and demonstrators are restricted to designated hell-raising zones well away from the meeting places and the convention delegates whose attention they are trying to grab. So much for democracy in action.
Protesters rarely pick on Republicans. The misbegotten and the disenfranchised know they cannot bend the will or modify the policies of the GOP. At least that’s the case since black delegates (there was such a thing back then) to the 1964 Republican convention in San Francisco staged a mass protest and walkout when Barry Goldwater was nominated for president. Demonstrators usually display their outrage at Democratic gatherings because the party is more responsive and willing to accommodate.
Republicans are in Tampa, 2286 delegates and 15,000 reporters, and Democrats will flock to Charlotte next week, nearly 25,000 delegates and alternates and other trenchermen and probably the same 15,000 reporters just traveling up the coast for an expense account summer.
Contrary to what most people believe, delegates attend conventions at their own expense and are not partying on the taxpayers’ dime. The number of delegates and the way they’re chosen says a lot about the two parties. There are storms over both conventions. Tampa is threatened by hurricanes and Charlotte is under siege by unions. The building trades unions are furious at Democrats because Charlotte is a non-union town in a right-to-work state. The convention stage that is being nailed together in Charlotte is a non-union project which has the building trades miffed.
To be sure, the GOP gathering in Tampa is probably the largest collection of whites since last Sunday’s 11 A.M. services at Episcopal churches across America. About two percent of the delegates are minorities. By contrast, the Democrats’ process of delegate selection goes strictly by the numbers, a quota system, if you will, that includes 10 different minority classifications that must be represented proportionately. To understand the Democratic delegate selection and allocation process requires an advanced degree in calculus. This, too, is as irrational as the GOP’s sunshine version of ethnic cleansing.
Conventions are more than political gatherings. They are fashion shows; they are food extravaganzas; they are trade shows; and they are tourism and boosterism vehicles almost as if organized by flush-faced Kiwanians and lubricated Rotarians, a chance for the 50 states and the territories to strut their stuff.
Cities and states pay millions to attract them and corporations spend millions to promote their products and display their logos. The Railroad Lounge has always been among the most popular complimentary food and beverage rest-stops in convention halls of both parties, an equal opportunity smorgasbord. The railroads need both parties. It is possible to eat free and well at conventions through the generosity of sponsors, lobbyists, candidates and state parties.
Republicans took the slow road to get to Tampa because of an unusually drawn-out primary season. It’s taken Mitt Romney years to win the nomination and it’s consumed an entire summer to try and unite the fractious and reluctant party behind his uncertain candidacy only to watch it fall apart again over the abortion issue and the asinine remarks of Rep. Todd Akin, the GOP’s U.S. Senate candidate in Missouri whose mouth and brain do not engage simultaneously.
For Democrats, the Charlotte convention, abbreviated to three days from the usual four, is, for a change, a quiet and tranquil event. They have the incumbency and they have a president in Barack Obama who has a united party behind him. The only question mark about Obama’s candidacy is the enthusiasm factor four years later when hope and change have evanesced into the ether of economic stagnation and joblessness.
The Republican convention is notable for those who will not be attending. Among the no-shows are the dynastic Bush presidents, George H. W., who is ill, and his son George W., who is widely unpopular, even within his own party, and former Vice President Dick Cheney, arguably among the least popular former public officials in the country. Under George W. Bush, the economy collapsed and he led the nation into two pointless wars. Even Romney rejects the association.
The campaign just keeps getting worse for Romney and Republicans. Romney, by gaffe or guile, has revived the Obama birth certificate issue by saying in Michigan, “No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate.” As if to underline the issue, the GOP convention will feature seven “birthers” as speakers, including Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, the nation’s leading xenophobe, and the bombastic Donald Trump, who refuses to accept Obama’s Hawaii birth certificate as authentic. It’s a political adage that “a gaffe hurts the most when it reveals the truth,” in this case what Romney and Republicans actually believe about Obama’s derivation. Translation: In your heart you know Romney’s white.
By contrast, the Democrats are showcasing former President Bill Clinton, who is more popular now than he was as president. Clinton’s resurrection is almost as miraculous as the Biblical one of 2000 years ago. People remember Clinton fondly because during his presidency times were thriving and Americans prospered. There were no senseless drawn out wars. What’s more, his wife, Hillary, a once and perhaps future presidential candidate, has distinguished herself as secretary of state and is on every list of most admired women. Clinton’s peccadilloes have been forgiven and forgotten.
Romney’s in a tough spot. So, too, for that matter, is Obama. Romney has done somersaults to try and unite the Republican base, for good or ill. And by every measure, Obama should lose the election because of the recessive economy and the stubbornly high jobless rate. Romney’s choice of Rep. Paul Ryan as his running-mate was a calculated maneuver to calm the GOP’s right flank which is suspicious of his candidacy.
But in making the choice, Romney may have alienated swing voters and independents who detest the meanness of Ryan’s supply side and self-interest economics. Even the Catholic Church, at which he worships, has rebuked Ryan for his punish the poor to pay the rich budget proposals. Simply put, the Republican base is not large enough to win the election.
The same goes for Obama and the Democrats. It’ll take more than the base to win a second term. But Obama has the solid support of three very influential voting blocs—blacks, Hispanics and women, now more than ever because Akin’s remarks about rape and pregnancy have focused the spotlight on the GOP’s position on reproductive rights.
The GOP’s oligarchs, including Romney and Ryan, tried to force Akin to quit the race to save the party. He has refused, probably because he believes he can win. The issue was magnified when it was revealed that Ryan had co-sponsored legislation with Akin that would have distinguished “forcible” rape from other kinds of rape, as if there is a difference. The GOP hierarchs’ pressure on Akin to withdraw, following the laws of physics, has produced an equal counter-pressure by offending the party’s right-to-life flank, adding to Romney’s unintended grief just as the convention gets underway.
So now Romney is stuck with the Republican platform, which denies abortion rights under any circumstances, although he claims it’s the convention platform and not his, even though he has not repudiated the position or the platform. And Ryan’s 18th century economic policies as well as his 1950s views on abortion and birth control have stuck to Romney like Krazy Glue.
Obama and the Democrats are delighted, though, to keep attention on social issues and away from the economy. And as long as Romney and Ryan, and all the Republican surrogates, are forced to defend the party’s conservative cultural positions they are unable to segue back to what was to be the central issue of their campaign—jobs, jobs, jobs. Thus, the election boils down to persuading a tiny sliver of the vote, about two percent, and foot-soldier combat in about eight battleground states. God is on the side with the best get-out-the-vote operation.
Anyone who says conventions are dull and meaningless doesn’t enjoy a rollicking good reality show. The convention in the hall addresses the delegates. The convention on TV speaks to the nation and that’s the one that counts. A botched speech, a mean-spirited floor fight or a riot on the streets can turn the tide of an election. It happened with Democrats in Chicago in 1968 and it happened in Miami in 1972. So stick with the convention on TV and forget the one in the hall.
—Frank A. DeFilippo has attended six national political conventions as a reporter an later as press secretary to Former Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel.