CONVENTIONS Why do they still bother?

July 12, 1992|By C. FRASER SMITH

Amonument to bullshine. . . . A money machine, spinning off millions for host cities. . . . A forum for political hacks with delusions of stature. . . . A chance to quit home and hit the big time cocktail circuit. . . . A boring irrelevancy.

The descriptions above should have conjured images of the quadrennial American phenomenon known as the party nominating convention. The first of two scheduled this summer will be droning on soon from a television set near you.

The derision implies old questions such as: Who needs 'em? Each costs $21 million or so in taxpayer dollars -- less and less willingly given over by voters who offered a $1 by checking off a box on their income tax return.

Taxpayers, scholars and pundits alike have concluded that these four- or five-day bouts are silly anachronisms. The usual argument goes like this: If parties themselves lost power in a world dominated by money and television, party conventions must surely have less impor- tance as well. In recent times, conventions have produced the worst of two worlds -- no sizzle and no substance.

"The party convention," says Herbert C. Smith, a professor at Western Maryland College and a political pollster, "is a political Brontosaurus heading for the tar pits to die." They may serve some "therapeutic purpose for the activist cadres," he says. They might give a "push" to the candidate.

But overall they have little significance for maintenance of the Republic. Of course, the condemned may be the last to know. Party activists insist the importance of conventions is rising.

This year, they may have a point.

Conventions are said to be boring because the nominee is known. His vice presidential running mate is known. Not for a generation or more has a convention actually selected a nominee. What drama can we expect to enliven an event whose ancient purpose has been achieved by another means (primaries) well in advance?

Perhaps, none. So what? Maybe the delegates are establishing important networks, useful in implementation of better health care, reduced pollution or crime?

The theorem seems to be: What's bad for TV is bad for democracy. But the opposite may be true.

We are talking after all about a convention, a meeting of men and women who care about this stuff and who think, like conventioneers of any stripe, that getting together is fun, if not demonstrably useful. Spirits get raised. People learn of organizing campaigns that succeeded in other states. They remember that winning the White House and everything that flows from that victory is more valuable than obsessing about why their first choice didn't get nominated.

And this year, political circumstance makes the utility easier to discern for both Democrats and Republicans. Both have candidates in need of something to produce momentum, to re-shape and re-package their candidates.

Maryland Democrats were saying last week that their party's convention makes the usual purposes of unifying a disparate membership even more important. In a three-candidate race, the contest could resemble a party primary and amplify the importance of core believers: You don't need a majority. The nominee needs to broaden his appeal, but maybe not quite so much.

"If your core stays together," Maryland's Attorney General J. Joseph Curran during a bit of pre-convention hoopla last Wednesday in Columbia, "the likelihood is that you'll prevail."

Mr. Curran was Maryland's leading backer of Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey for president. He's a Clinton man now, a unity man. With Dan Rupli, who ran Iowa Senator Tom Harkin's presidential campaign in Maryland, the attorney general helped to organize the rally in Columbia.

Dan Rupli came to the rally with a lapel-load of Clinton stickers zTC and a name tag that identified him as a "Raving Democrat" -- raving for Clinton. "That's what this is all about," Mr. Curran said.

Candidate Clinton has done his job, surviving against the predictions of many in his party. Their candidate is surprising even the most discouraged loyalist by showing signs of strength after a ruinous primary season. (Professor Smith says the Arkansas governor is the Steven Seagal candidate for 1992. He was referring to the movie classic "Hard To Kill.") Now he needs a platform to begin displaying the skills that enabled him to survive. The convention could help.

"Convention time is always a time of bringing divergent threads together," says Mary Ann Keeffe, a delegate from Montgomery County. This year, though, the challenge is more severe: "Ross Perot is running against parties so we have an additional motivation for getting together and examining our message."

"People have been distracted by all the personal shortcomings, which everyone has," says Baltimore City Councilman Martin O'Malley, referring to Mr. Clinton. "What they need to see is that he has assembled a new, 200-year-old party." Mr. O'Malley ran Bob Kerrey's campaign in Maryland.

"I really want to win this time," says Dan Rupli. "We really need to show the generation that's coming along that government can really work, make a difference in people's lives."

It starts tomorrow. In New York. With funny hats. Again.

Fraser Smith is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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