National party conventions: delegated to ideology?
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Not only had the players in the convention hall changed, but what they did at the convention had changed as well. Conflict no longer occurred between coalitions trying to secure the nomination, but rather between the nominee-to-be and the delegates - sometimes those of a runner-up, sometimes his own.Skip to next paragraph
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The nominee was interested in a smooth convention to launch his presidential campaign, Shafer says. The delegates were more interested in trying to undo the foreordained nomination or to enact party platforms with positions more radical than the nominee's.
Today, such struggles center on the platform and the vice-presidential nomination. Their resolution can be crucial to the nominee. George McGovern lost control of the 1972 Democratic convention to a fight over the vice-presidential nomination. As a result he gave his important televised acceptance speech after 3 a.m. Eastern time.
The 1976 Ford and 1980 Carter organizations set the pattern for containing and smoothing over such convention conflict when they acceded to embarrassing platform planks.
Shafer also reviews the changing nature of TV convention coverage. The gavel-to-gavel coverage the networks provided beginning with the 1952 conventions became the standard.
Yet even at the beginning, Shafer says, the conventions usually attracted only about half the normal TV audience. This led to a continuing struggle between network news divisions and the programming and marketing departments over whether gavel-to-gavel coverage was justified.
As time wore on, commercial considerations began to carry the day. By 1984 the networks offered only 40 percent of the coverage they had provided before, Shafer says.
This led to a qualitative shift in the coverage as well. Network editorial decisions presented to the viewing public a convention very different from the one taking place in the hall itself - creating what Shafer terms the ``bifurcated convention.'' The 1980 flap over whether Gerald Ford might be offered the vice-presidential nomination on the Reagan ticket played itself out before the viewing public while the delegates on the floor were unaware it was even taking place.
What of the future? Shafer predicts that the nomination will not return to the convention, mostly because the public doesn't really want it to. If a future convention actually brokered a nomination in the old style, he estimates, public displeasure with the results would ensure that it didn't happen again.
Tested against the 1988 primaries and conventions, Shafer's analysis holds up well. He correctly foresaw that the 1988 Southern regional primary would not strengthen the South's influence in determining the Democratic nominee.
What Shafer does not address is whether we, the people, have made things better or worse in our tinkering with the nomination process. Do we get better candidates from the primaries than through the old ``smoke-filled rooms'' of party conventions? Is it in the public interest to have ideological convention delegates dragging the parties further and further to the right and left? If we stopped rubber-stamping nominations in party conventions and went instead to a national primary, one direction Shafer suggests we are headed, would party conventions continue? Would political parties themselves survive at the presidential level? Any serious student of American politics would do well to ponder these questions.
Lawrence J. Goodrich is on the Monitor staff.