Every four years the languid torpor of August is shattered by the racket of national political conventions. The main purpose of the conventions is to nominate presidential and vice presidential candidates. A second and often far more useful role is to put the political mood of both parties and, hence, a majority of the nation, on public view.
This year there seems to be scant reason to hold either the Democratic convention or the Republican one. The Republicans may demonstrate how divided they are over the abortion issue when they meet Aug. 14 in San Diego. The Democratic convention on Aug. 26 in Chicago will be a coronation of President Clinton as his party's once and future nominee.
Our present convention system had its rudimentary beginnings in a caucus of Republican (no relation to the present party of the same name) congressmen in 1800 who chose Thomas Jefferson as their party's presidential nominee.
The first modern convention was held by the Democratic Party in Baltimore in May 1832, to endorse Andrew Jackson's reelection.
These great political conclaves eventually disintegrated into gaudy spectacles whose real work was performed by party bosses in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms. Warren Gamaliel Harding's nomination in 1920 was a classic example of a candidate imposed on a divided convention by the panjandrums of the Republican Party. Ultimately the faithful of both parties regained the power to nominate their candidates.
But that power is now exercised by primaries, caucuses, and state conventions. Delegates, who must vote for their state's winner until released, go on to the national conventions to whoop it up, wear funny hats, listen to the drone of predictable oratory, and then vote for the candidate everyone knows will be chosen. Such conventions and their results tell us nothing about the state of the national political mind.
If present trends continue, Mr. Clinton will probably defeat Bob Dole in November - not because he's exceptionally popular, but because Clinton is generally seen as the best of a bad choice; Mr. Dole is perceived as too old, and his campaign too muddled and incoherent.
As things stand now, the real political drama of the year will be in the struggle to control the 104th Congress. That struggle is being waged in all 435 House districts and in races for 33 Senate seats. Cumulatively, the results will paint a broad portrait of the national political mood.
The present Republican majority in the House and Senate was the result of the 1992 and '94 elections. The electorate demanded change, voted for conservative Republicans, and sat back to watch the results.
Change is a tricky demand to make of members of Congress. Those elected under the cry of change tend to believe that their particular programs or policies are what the voters want. There is evidence now that the voting public is disenchanted by the Contract With America and other conservative policies. Newt Gingrich has become the country's most unpopular national politician, and many House Republicans indebted to him for 1992 and '94 are now edging away from the Speaker as the '96 elections approach.
The outcome of the congressional elections is unknowable, and there will be no grand carnival to enlighten us about them. The presidential election is the least mysterious political event of 1996 - and two vast conventions will put its components on tedious display in the coming month.
Future years may not be as cut and dried as this one. It would be, therefore, unwise to dispense with the conventions. But, in 1996, they will probably lack both suspense and revelation.
*Rod MacLeish is Monitor Radio's Washington editor.