Republicans picked Cleveland to host their 2016 national convention, and the city, writes the Plain Dealer’s Stephen Koff, “is swooning over its victory.”
No kidding. “Huge day for our city. Has anything ever happened here that’s bigger?” tweeted Aaron Goldhammer, co-host of ESPN Cleveland’s morning sports show. Ed FitzGerald, Cuyahoga County’s elected executive and the 2014 Democratic nominee for governor of Ohio, rejoiced in the GOP’s confirmation “that Cleveland is now in the middle of a historic renaissance.” Local hero Charles Ramsey, who last year saved three Cleveland women held hostage for 10 years, told a TV interviewer that news of the coming Republican convention made him “giddy . . . happy as a clam.”
Though I’ve spent more than half my life in Boston, I’m a born-and-bred Clevelander, so none of this delirium surprises me. To grow up in Cleveland in the 1960s and 1970s was to live in the Rodney Dangerfield of cities — the town with the inflammable river and mayoral hair, the butt of endless jokes on “Laugh-In,” the home of a ball club so desperate for fans that it offered 10-cent beer as a promotion and wound up with a drunken ninth-inning riot. Is it any wonder Cleveland developed a persistent inferiority complex? There are only so many times a city can hear itself mocked as the “mistake on the lake” before taking the put-down to heart.
But don’t be too quick to scoff, Boston. Cleveland’s euphoria at landing a presidential nominating convention may seem excessive, and it might be tempting to smirk at a town so hungry to have its significance “validated” that it would treat a gathering of politicos and media people as a prize beyond measure. Yet Cleveland’s reaction is no different from Boston’s when it was chosen to host the 2004 Democratic National Convention. “This is the relaunch of Boston,” Jack Connors, head of one of the city’s top ad agencies, exclaimed at the time. A legislator from Boston hailed the selection as history-making: “Let’s face it, the city’s crossing a threshold here.”
The truth, of course, was that Boston didn’t need a relaunch any more than Cleveland needs to be validated. Cities crave major-party conventions because they see themselves basking in the reflected prestige of a presidential nominee and the political poobahs swarming in from around the country. Given the dismal opinion Americans have of national politics and politicians, that prestige is mostly theoretical, but the illusion persists.
Lord knows why. Has any city’s national reputation been measurably enhanced because it was the site of a quadrennial nominating convention? The parties spend immense sums to stage these events, and the media send armies of journalists to cover them. Yet voters tune out most of the proceedings, which in any event have almost no effect on how the election turns out.
Besides the supposed glory that comes with hosting the GOP’s conclave in two years, Clevelanders are being told to anticipate an economic boost of $200 million from all the wealth delegates will be spreading around.
But Cleveland is apt to learn what other host cities have learned about the bonanza that conventions are invariably predicted to generate: It’s also mostly theoretical. Boston officials repeatedly claimed that the local economy would reap a $150 million windfall through hosting the 2004 convention. In the event, it netted one-tenth that amount. Most delegates spent less than $500 during their stay in the city; a majority never ventured beyond the convention site and their hotels. “As a short-term economic event, the DNC clearly was a bust,” the Boston Business Journal glumly concluded.
Boston wasn’t an outlier. National Journal reported two years ago on research by economists at Holy Cross who “reviewed every national political convention hosted between 1972 and 2004, comparing 14 convention towns with 36 similar regions.” Result: Not one of the 18 conventions during those years “had any impact on personal income or local employment in the host city.”
I begrudge Cleveland not one iota of the civic pride it takes in having won the 2016 convention. But I also know that Cleveland doesn’t need a horde of conventioneers — or even, dare I say it, LeBron James — to feel good about itself. “Laugh-In” is ancient history, and Cleveland is no longer the buckle on the Rust Belt. Republicans picked a city whose reputation is far better than it used to be. If only the same could be said about Republicans. Or Democrats.Jeff Jacoby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.