Monday, February 13, 2012

Palin's Pronouncement

As hesitant as I am to give Sarah Palin credit for, well, anything, I actually do feel compelled to give her some credit for her observation that a brokered convention would not necessarily be a bad thing.

Folks who perpetuate the idea that it would be bad for the Republican Party, she said, have "an agenda" — which, admittedly, sounds a lot like her usual conspiracy theory talk defaming everyone in the media or the party establishment — but suspend your disbelief and/or skepticism for a few minutes, OK?

While I won't rule out the possibility that Palin is playing the rest of us for a bunch of suckers and laying the groundwork for a "Draft Palin" movement in Tampa later this year, I will concede that she makes a valid point or two, especially when you consider recent electoral history.

Four years ago, the Democrats' nominating process dragged into the summer, and the pundits said it would mortally wound the nominee.

And, I suppose, it could have if 2008 had been an ordinary political year. But it wasn't.

You couldn't tell that right after the conventions. In the first half of September, the Democrats were struggling in the polls, and there was talk that Barack Obama had made a tactical error in choosing Joe Biden to be his running mate. Some Democrats openly fretted that Hillary Clinton should have been the running mate.

Seemed like business as usual — perhaps all those months of infighting really had taken their toll.

But then the economy imploded, and voters became determined to change directions. In the last six weeks of that campaign, the tide turned irreversibly to the Democrats. If Obama had needed two ballots or more to win the nomination in August, it probably wouldn't have mattered by Election Day 2008.

From the vantage point of 2012 (and in the eventual long–term context of history), the outcome of the 2008 election might look inevitable, but it was hardly certain at the time.

Anyway, Palin's assertion challenged the (pardon the pun) conventional wisdom that conventions do not serve the same purpose in the TV age that they did in the first 150 years of the republic's existence.

In the last half century, conventions have been about making the best possible use of the free air time the parties received. Organizers of modern conventions want things to be decided outside the view of the cameras. They want their primetime coverage to present a picture of a united, harmonious party to the national audience, enthusiastic about its nominees and its platform and ready to do battle in the general election campaign.

They don't want their conventions to be discussions about important issues that engage the viewers instead of entertaining them, and they don't want prolonged battles for the nomination. They want bands and balloons and cheering delegates. Perhaps they are fearful that if a convention goes past the first ballot — and previously committed delegates are free to vote in any way that they please — that is an invitation to chaos.

But that is not necessarily so.

Democrats have been holding presidential nominating conventions since 1832. Republicans have been holding such conventions since 1856. Originally, parties made important decisions at their conventions. They nominated their candidates for president and vice president, that's true, but they also defined who they were and what they stood for in their platforms.

In a nation that was still growing, still emerging and constantly facing new challenges, that was important. It helped Americans decide which directions they wanted to take, what kind of country they wanted to have. It was the essence of democracy.

The platform–building process is still important today, but the debates (such as they are) take place weeks before the convention — under the watchful eyes of the presumptive nominee's staff.

And their overwhelming concern is how it will look on television.

Before television came along, few Americans saw what went on at a party's convention, and most read about it through the media filter. It didn't matter to them if the acceptance speeches were delivered before 10 p.m. or at 3 in the morning — or if it took several ballots to decide on a presidential nominee.

The modern assumption is that a multi–ballot convention will be a negative. But Palin says it doesn't have to be, and I agree with her on that.

A convention in which viewers do not know the outcome could generate a lot of interest, and I think that would tend to attract viewers, kind of like an athletic contest between evenly matched teams.

No organizer wants to see something like what unfolded in the streets of Chicago in 1968, but that doesn't necessarily have to be the image the country sees. Instead, it could see a group of Americans calmly and rationally discussing the pros and cons of issues that affect their countrymen and the candidates who propose to lead them.

In the past, multi–ballot conventions have sometimes produced compromise nominees, and that is one possible scenario. No one really knows what to expect, in no small part because neither party has had a multi–ballot convention since 1952, when TV was still in its infancy.

The Republicans' most recent experiences with multi–ballot conventions — in 1948, when the GOP needed three ballots to settle on Tom Dewey for the second straight election, and in 1940, when the Republicans picked Wendell Willkie after six ballots — weren't especially good.

Dewey was defeated by Harry Truman (Mitt Romney has been compared to Dewey), and Willkie lost to FDR (Newt Gingrich has suggested that this year's convention might resemble the one in 1940).

But in the pre–television days, open conventions were known to produce Republican nominees who won sometimes — Abraham Lincoln in 1860, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, James Garfield in 1880, Benjamin Harrison in 1888 and Warren Harding in 1920 — so it is not unprecedented.

Likewise, multi–ballot conventions produced some winners on the Democratic side — James Polk in 1844, Franklin Pierce in 1852, James Buchanan in 1856, Grover Cleveland in 1884, Woodrow Wilson in 1912 and FDR in 1932.

Don't misunderstand. There is no guarantee that an open convention will produce a winner. Nine multi–ballot Democratic conventions produced losers as did three other Republican ones (in addition to the two previously mentioned).

And you can add political scientist and historian to the lengthy (and still growing) list of things that Palin is not.

But this much is certain. Both the winners and the losers of the last 14 presidential elections were nominated in one ballot

Could a multi–ballot nominee fare any worse?

No comments: