Making the Hurrahs Last

In the good old days, the prospect of platform battles added some dramatic tension in the run-up to those premier American political pageants, the national party conventions. Democrats used to wrestle over how far their party should veer to the left with social-welfare schemes. Just four years ago, Republicans had a major set-to over abortion.

But the Clintonian "New Democrat" politics have quelled Democratic intramural squabbles (though strong undercurrents of disagreement remain over free trade and other issues). The GOP under George W. Bush appears determined to accomplish something similar. And, of course, reliance on primaries long ago eliminated any suspense over who the main candidates will be.

Republican platform discussions have so far focused on what party planners call the issues most people really care about - Social Security or education. They're doing their best to make sure incendiary subjects such as gun control, and, yes, abortion don't grab attention. These are things many Republicans don't see eye to eye on, and unity is the byword.

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Unity, however, can lead to snores just as the parties are gearing up for conventions, which, in theory at least, propel candidates toward victory in November. The pols have reason for concern. For the first time, none of the major commercial broadcast networks are planning day-by-day coverage of the conventions.

Why? In essence, because summer reruns are likely to get higher ratings.

Network news executives argue that the conventions have become more like "infomercials" for the parties. The presidential nominees are foregone conclusions. Where's the news? they ask. More to the point, perhaps, Where's the audience?

Ratings indicate the proportion of American households that tune into the conventions has declined by almost half since 1960. PBS and the cable news channels will provide coverage nonetheless, but the networks have decided reruns and preseason football are better draws.

This is sad. For some of us, the political conventions leave memories that enliven and document the country's politics: Barry Goldwater's acceptance speech in 1964, the 1968 Democratic debacle in Chicago, and countless other mental snapshots of famous speeches, out-of-the-blue running-mate choices, and even hilarious slips of the tongue. Through it all runs a feeling that the tumult and shouting indicate a still-vigorous democracy.

Today, these events seem scripted and predictable. (Activists and critics plan "shadow conventions" this year to highlight what ought to be said at the party conventions, but isn't.) The parties and nominees would be wise to hold off on vice presidential announcements, and maybe encourage a bit of platform controversy. That might get the networks - and the viewers - to reconsider.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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