Tuesday, August 10, 2004
A modest proposal
The Democratic national convention took place, and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts was nominated for President. You might not have noticed this, if you depend too heavily on network television for your news. The networks only carried about one hour per day of the Democratic convention, and I expect the Republicans will be similarly shunned when they meet at the end of this month.
The perceived need to fit anything of importance into an hour, while at the same time making maximum use of the network’s coverage, prompted Kerry to try to give an 80-minute speech in 60 minutes. The speech often seemed rushed, as Kerry kept trying to talk over the applause, and his hurrying probably contributed to the generally poor reviews that the speech received.
These poor reviews, and the lack of network coverage, helped to make the Democratic convention one of the least successful in 30 years. Kerry’s popularity among voters did not rise after the convention. According to the Gallup poll, it was President George W. Bush who got a five-point "bounce" after the Democratic convention.
Unless the Republican convention is accompanied by a major news story favorable to Bush, such as the capture of Osama bin Laden, it is unlikely that Bush’s poll numbers will change much after the Republicans’ meeting in New York. The decline in viewership, and the consequent decline in network coverage, have been visible trends for decades. Since national conventions cost so much money, and demand so much time for planning and scheduling, down to the final details, why are so few people watching?
The answer is that no one is watching because the conventions are planned and scheduled, down to the final detail. In recent years, both parties have rigged the roll call for nomination in such a way that some swing state gets the honor of providing the winning votes for the nominee, no matter where that state falls in the alphabet. And to completely remove any drama from even this rubber-stamp proceeding, the parties issue press releases with the name of the honored state, and the approximate time that the winning votes will be cast.
Political leaders hate surprises. When presented with an important event that they do control, such as a national nominating convention, they remove all the variables, perhaps in unwitting homage to the former British Prime Minister who once said, "It is carrying democracy too far not to know the outcome of the vote before the meeting."
In addition, today’s political leaders are haunted by the memory of the 1972 Democratic convention, at which George McGovern had to give his acceptance speech in the wee hours of the morning. (This was, perhaps not coincidentally, the last time before 2004 that a nominee failed to get a bounce in the polls after his convention.)
Yet, in striving so hard to prevent any unpleasant surprises, political leaders have completely outsmarted themselves. Yearning to prevent the people from seeing anything unpleasant, they are inducing the people to see nothing at all.
It is too late for the Republicans to change anything in time for their convention this year. But for 2008, I would make a modest proposal: let the delegates to the national conventions name the Vice Presidential nominees. Once the two parties have their nominee for President selected, and this occurs early in the primary season, that nominee should announce that he or she will not name a Vice President. Instead, the nominee should announce a willingness to run with whomever is chosen at the convention.
This would insert uncertainty, and thus real drama. Delegates themselves would have real power, which would make them not only newsworthy during convention week, but also celebrities in their local news markets for weeks before the convention. Every reasonably prominent politician would vie for a spot on the speaker’s schedule, to impress the delegates. The networks would have little choice but to cover these speeches, since no network would take the chance on missing a groundswell of support that led to a nomination for Vice President.
Besides covering the speeches, the networks would cover the convention floor, trying to get a sense of whose star was rising. Giving delegates control over the Vice Presidential nomination would almost certainly lead to a contested roll call, with the outcome genuinely in doubt. Ratings for the conventions would go through the roof.
Moreover, the risks to the parties would be small. First, Vice Presidents make almost no difference in Presidential races. Second, convention delegates are likely to make good choices. They would almost have to do better than Spiro T. Agnew or John Edwards. Watching the delegates make the choice for Vice President would make conventions exciting again.
And when was the last time you saw "exciting" and "Vice President" in the same sentence?