Nothing motivates Congress to close up shop like the smell of jet fumes in the air. After spending the better part of the year getting nothing done, tying up loose ends this week should be easier than ever. And as they head for the doors and the August recess beyond, our senators and representatives will have their eyes on Tampa and Charlotte, hosts to the Republican and Democratic national conventions.
Love them or hate them, the conventions are a pageant that everyone should see up close at least once. It’s hard to imagine presidential politics without them. It’s also hard to believe that William Shakespeare had never seen one when he wrote the line about “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Not so long ago, national party conventions evoked the mystique and drama of Henry Fonda’s patriotic concession in “The Best Man” or Angela Lansbury’s scheming in the “The Manchurian Candidate.” Today’s mechanically structured events read more like a gathering of insurance agents, Shriners, or better yet, Comic-Con 2012. And like that international gathering of comic book aficionados, the party conventions have it all: superhero worship — no convention is complete without a powerful homage to Reagan, Roosevelt, or Kennedy; in-depth analysis of today’s great debates — “The Economic Consequences of Repealing Obamacare” or “Hulk vs. Aquaman: Who Wins the Straight-up Fight?”; and issue advocacy — “Spiderman 5 . . . NOW!”
Yet for all the attention they receive, the conventions, much like vice presidential picks, have very little impact on the election outcome. In 1988 Mike Dukakis left Atlanta with a big lead in the polls; 20 years later the Republican National Convention appeared to put John McCain into a dead heat with Barack Obama. The excitement was fleeting.
Instead, nominees should come to town with modest objectives. At best, conventions serve to thank and motivate supporters, dominate the airwaves for a few days, and set the tone for the home stretch. At their worst, they can be awkward, frustrating, and leave behind a lot of disgruntled delegates and reporters. In fact, the key to a successful convention is simple: Keep those two constituencies happy. Period.
For delegates, the winning formula comes down to a few basics: Make it easy to get to the convention hall, provide plenty of room on the floor, and give everyone a chance to hit a few good parties — preferably with a celebrity or two in attendance. (Believe me, that memory of talking education reform with Chuck Norris will last a lifetime.) For the press, it’s even simpler: Access to the delegates, plenty of air-conditioned space to file their stories, and close proximity to a good restaurant and a bar or two.
As a challenger, Romney should be happy with a speech that comes off well, gets some notice in the press, and falls on a night when there’s nothing else on TV. And if all goes well, the “biopic” that has become a convention staple will help a few independent voters better appreciate his family life, personality, and professional success. That sounds like a low bar, but candidates have to accomplish this on live TV while the press is doing everything possible to create a story other than the one they want to tell. “Look at the big hats on the Texas delegation”; “watch someone explode over their lack of a prime-time speaking slot”; “listen as Donald Trump says something provocative” (imagine that!).
Obama faces similar hurdles in Charlotte, where expectations will run a bit higher. He built 2008’s successful campaign on a gift for political theater and raw emotion: anger at George W. Bush, anxiety over the financial crisis, and the amorphous desire for “change.” Now, with a stalled economy and sky-high unemployment, he needs to convince voters that “we’re (still) the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
Tough times call for an even more vacuous rallying cry, and the brain trust has settled on “Forward.” The brilliance of the new slogan is that supporters can make it mean whatever they want. The problem is that the vision of Obama accepting the party nomination at Bank of America Field can’t help but shake the idealism from the message. Then again, in an age where drama and mystique have been wrung out of the nominating conventions — and there’s barely any sound or fury left — a little bit of irony is better than nothing.