VOL. 110 | NO. 173 | Friday, September 6, 1996
National Political Conventions
National Political Conventions
By Berje Yacoubian
Special to The Daily News
Before television and the annual visit of the Barnum and Bailey Circus, there were national political conventions which provided excitement and forums for debating vital issues. Every leap year, presidential nominating conventions acted as vaccinations against political pestilence and summer boredom. For over a century, national political conventions were vibrant gatherings where presidents and vice presidents were selected and party platforms hammered out, charting a course which would take the party to victory in the general elections. They were like bazaars where state delegates (controlled by party bosses) and votes were traded for positions, usually the vice presidency or cabinet positions.
Conventions were anything but boring, and amazingly, some of the most chaotic ones produced some of our most successful presidents. But just as presidents were picked without nominating conventions before 1832, they are picked without them now. Since 1972, the presidential candidates of both the Republican and the Democratic parties were selected well in advance of their party conventions. For six elections in a row, delegates were merely asked to vote the way they were pledged to vote in their states primaries. So why do we have four-day-long extravaganzas where members of the press get so bored at times that they interview each other for news? Both the Republican and Democratic conventions of 1996 were uneventful shows lacking in imagination and vitality. This was not always so.
The first national political convention was held by the anti-Masonic party which nominated William Wirt of Maryland in September of 1831. Both the Democrats and Republicans followed suit and held their first national nominating conventions in Baltimore as well. The Republicans nominated Henry Clay for president and demanded the rechartering of the Bank of the United States. The Democrats nominated President Andrew Jackson and endorsed his vice presidential choice, Martin Van Buren.
In 1848, Ralph Waldo Emerson defined the qualities elected representatives must have to be judged worthy. He asked: is he talented, is he honest and has he a (strong) will to do whats right. The presidential nominating conventions of 1860 showed that the Republicans found in Abraham Lincoln not only a talented, honest and shrewd politician but also one with a strong will to carry out his mission of stopping the spread of slavery into the new territories. The Democrats met in April 1860 but failed to nominate a candidate and met again in June to nominate Sen. Stephen Douglas. The Republican platform almost guaranteed Lincolns victory because the issues in the platform addressed the growth needs of the industrial East and the agricultural West, while conceding the South. Well, what do you know, platforms can actually matter.
National political conventions can also help future presidents to sharpen their bargaining skills, a quality which is surely necessary for any successful president who wants to bargain with Congress for legislation and negotiate with foreign powers for land or trading privileges. The convention of 1912 did just that for Woodrow Wilson. It took Wilson 46 ballots to convince Oscar Underwood of Alabama to withdraw his name, in order to assure Wilson the two-thirds majority required. Wilson the idealist became Wilson the pragmatist because without victory, ideals would remain just ideas.
In the Democratic convention of 1932, Franklin Roosevelt had to promise the vice presidency to John Nance Garner in return for victory on the fourth ballot. And in 1952, Eisenhowers forces out-maneuvered Sen. Robert Taft to take away the nomination at the Republican convention. However, in 1972, George McGoverns victory at the Democratic nomination also brought in significant rule changes in the name of democratizing the process, thus sharply reducing the power of party officials and encouraging many more states to hold presidential primaries. Since then, conventions have been predictable and uneventful. Yes, it is true that "man cannot live by politics alone" as William Bourne wrote in "War and Intellectuals" in 1917, but politics is the business of controversy, turmoil, negotiation and compromise, and political conventions were like laboratories with glass walls where voters could observe the process.
No more. In 1996, both the Republican and Democratic conventions charted and followed scripts made for television viewing. We were told that the parties have widely divergent views of the future. If Bill Clinton is serious about amending major portions of FDRs New Deal Social Security, Welfare and some health-related benefits he could and should have outlined his "New Convenient Vision" more clearly and unequivocally at the convention. And if Bob Dole was serious about cutting taxes across the board and balancing the budget in six years (welcome back to Reaganomics), he should have clearly explained to the Republican convention delegates and to the country which programs he intends to cut and how he would pay for his tax cuts. Instead, we got a TV show slicker than any network program.
Who needs four-day-long political infomercials when plenty of cable stations have reruns of "Lucy," "Gilligans Island" and "Politically Incorrect?"
This article represents the opinions of the author, Berje Yacoubian, who is a Memphis pollster and owner of Yacoubian Market Research.