THE CONVENTIONAL wisdom, so to speak, is that political conventions, and in particular this year’s conventions, are pointless. Their original purpose — to figure out who would be the parties’ nominees — has gone by the wayside, thanks to the primary process. They are, runs the critique, an empty show, lacking in drama even as they become ever more complex and expensive (over $136 million this year). The major television networks seem increasingly bored, while the 24-hours news stations appear to prefer their talking heads to the events on the floor.
Even the American public is becoming disenchanted: Viewership this year was down from 2008 and a recent Rasmussen poll found 44 percent think conventions “a waste of time and money.” Pundits and politicians both left and right are looking for wholesale change.
The conventional wisdom is wrong. The conventions might benefit from a few tweaks, but on the whole they worked brilliantly: They were interesting, they dominated the news cycle for two weeks, they had a meaningful impact on the race, and, perhaps most importantly, they were — in an increasingly fragmented world — a welcome moment of national engagement.
The conventions marked the first time in this long election season where each party got to address a coast-to-coast audience — and where that audience could compare and contrast the philosophies and political programs of each side. They also were the first time when politicians were able to speak unexpurgated, without the cuts and edits that usually accompany any televised presentation. Even with fewer viewers this year, an enormous number of folks watched the proceedings: 30.3 million for the Republican convention and (a harbinger?) 35.7 million for the Democratic. But the impact was far greater than that — the conventions dominated the print media and the new media as well.
And despite predictions to the contrary, it looks as if the conventions did matter. The Republicans made an eloquent argument for change, but provided few specifics about what they would do differently. The Democrats begged for more time and, especially in Bill Clinton’s address, effectively dissected GOP attacks against the president. Voters seemed more persuaded by the Democrats. Thus, the Real Clear Politics average of polls now shows a marked shift in the race, from a near tie just a few weeks ago to a solid 3.5 point margin for Obama. Some individual polls show an even wider gap.
Of course, the election still has seven weeks to go and much can happen. Four debates are scheduled, and those face-to-face confrontations could easily change things. So too could current events. Last week’s murder of the US ambassador to Libya may influence the race in ways that are still unknown (for instance, does Joe Biden’s line that “Osama bin Laden is dead, and GM is alive” now look too glib and triumphal, or does Mitt Romney’s lightning-quick jab at the administration smack of over-the-line partisanship?).
But was it worth it? Granted, $136 million is a lot of money — too much, many might think, for merely shifting polls a few points. But the Center for Responsive Politics estimates the entire presidential election will cost $2.5 billion this year (an appalling number, granted, and worth an entirely separate debate). In that context, the national conventions — easily one of the most significant and wide-reaching events of the season — are a relative bargain.
Ever since Robert Putnam’s 2000 book “Bowling Alone,” social observers have fretted about the degree to which American society has become increasingly atomized. Especially with the advent of the Internet, there seem to be ever fewer occasions when citizens are, on a large scale, actively engaged in a single undertaking. The conventions were a true counterpoint to this. Even better, they forced us to think about the direction of the nation and the kind of country we wish to be. No doubt, they could be improved: three days (not the GOP’s originally scheduled four), better speakers, and some real debates (over platforms, for instance) would liven things up. But get rid of them? No way. Those two weeks were good for the soul of America.