Conventions offer insights into party tensions, trends

GERMOND & WITCOVER

July 04, 1992|By GERMOND & WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- This is the season for the quadrennial hand-wringing over the political parties' nominating conventions. They have become, we are told, anachronisms in the age of primaries, meaningless ceremonies that serve no purpose when the voters already have chosen the presidential nominees. There hasn't been even a second ballot since 1952, for heaven's sake.

The television networks are joining in the bad-mouthing. ABC, CBS and NBC no longer will provide full prime-time coverage, let alone gavel-to-gavel.

The conventions, they say, have become nothing more than self-promotion by the parties. Why cover them when you can run "Murphy Brown" and attract so many more viewers and sponsors' dollars?

All of this is, of course, beyond dispute. But there is also a case that can be made that national conventions, despite their limitations, can be useful and revealing political exercises.

Their value to the participants is obvious.

When the Democrats gather in New York a week from Monday, it will be the one occasion every four years when these political activists from states as diverse as Alabama and New Jersey discover again what they have in common and where they disagree. It can even be, you should pardon the expression, educational for an urban politician from Bayonne to hear what the party's ticket must do to be marketable in Anniston.

The conventions are also revealing to outsiders, meaning journalists and as much of the public as chooses to watch the gatherings on television. If you listen July 13 to Zell Miller and Bill Bradley, you will hear a different song from what you will get a month later from Dan Quayle and Phil Gramm. The two parties' visions of America are very different, and four days of rhetoric make the difference crystal clear.

There is also a sharp contrast in the makeup and functioning of the conventions.

Republicans tend to be white, middle-class and suburban voters who keep reminding everyone they want "four more years" like the last four, which is unsurprising in light of the fact they have won five of the past six presidential elections.

Democrats are a far more heterogeneous and contentious group that houses wildly divergent views of national priorities and a substantial population of delegates who want to argue about how many nuances you can stuff on the head of a pin.

Republican conventions are generally far better organized; Democrats always find a way to make a hash of their schedule.

The conventions can be revealing in other ways.

At the Republican convention in Kansas City in 1976, Ronald Reagan's challenge to the renomination of President Gerald R. Ford fell short by a whisker -- perhaps no bigger than a few votes in the Mississippi delegation -- but made plain the direction in which the party was moving over the next four years.

The Democratic convention in New York in 1980 was supposed to be a routine renomination of President Jimmy Carter. But the tensions in the party were evident in the spectacle of Carter striding around the platform seeking a public display of unity from the man he had vanquished in the primaries, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

Conventions sometimes reveal significant political division. The raucous 1964 Republican convention in San Francisco nominated Barry Goldwater and sent the party's "eastern liberal establishment" permanently into the political nether world.

The even more tumultuous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago predictably nominated Hubert H. Humphrey but only after four days of brawling on the floor and in the streets that left the party crippled for the campaign ahead.

When they were getting full attention from the television networks, the conventions were important factors in shaping perceptions of the two parties.

When the Democrats nominated George S. McGovern at Miami Beach 20 years ago, they thought they were taking part in the ultimate exercise in small "d" democracy -- even allowing the wrangling to delay McGovern's acceptance speech until after 2 a.m. But subsequent polls showed the voters thought they were watching a bunch of nut cakes.

This year the voters will not be forced to pay so much attention. But those who choose to watch "Murphy Brown" may be missing something.

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