Julian Zelizer: Is the convention really a boost?





[Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the co-editor of “Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s” (Harvard University Press) and is completing a book on the history of national security politics since World War II.]

Lamenting the decline of party conventions has become a favorite pastime of political pundits. Every four years, they fill newspapers and television screens with nostalgic paeans to the way real decisions were once made at conventions, with open debate about platforms and candidates, and now every image is scripted for television.

There are no more smoke-filled rooms to speak of. The pundits love to draw a contrast with classic moments such as 1948 in Philadelphia, where Southern Democrats responded to Hubert Humphrey’s call for civil rights by bolting out of the Democratic convention or 1980 in New York City, where Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s supporters fought for a rule that would allow delegates to vote for a candidate other than the one voters had selected in the primary.

But conventions still matter. The central component to a modern convention is the speech. Each candidate delivers a major address to more people than ever in his or her career (in most cases). There are moments when candidacies benefit greatly from these speeches. In 1980, Ronald Reagan sent an important signal to religious conservatives when he ended his speech with a moment of silent prayer. In 2000, George W. Bush spoke about compassionate conservatism with words that helped him win moderate support.

There are also numerous speeches by lesser-known politicians, such as Barack Obama’s 2004 keynote address, that introduce them to the national stage and make them future players in the party.

More common, though, are speeches that harm a candidacy — and even a presidency. George H.W. Bush promised in 1988 that he would never raise taxes, but that promise came back to devastate his presidency when he abandoned it in 1990. Conservatives never forgave him. “Read my lips, no new taxes” has become part of the American political lexicon, a catchphrase for not keeping promises.

Sen. John F. Kerry’s decision to start his 2004 convention speech by giving a military salute and saying, “I’m John Kerry, and I’m reporting for duty,” proved to be disastrous. He hoped, as a veteran, to steal the national security issue away from President Bush, who had avoided service in Vietnam. It didn’t work that way. A crafty Karl Rove jumped on the speech, turning it against Kerry. Republicans accepted the Democratic challenge and focused attention on Kerry’s role as a war protester, as well as on allegations about the truthfulness of his war record.

Another important aspect of the modern convention is the party platform. While these documents are carefully scripted, and often are not followed after the election takes place, they still matter in terms of sending a message about how a party hopes to define itself.

In 1976, Reagan’s supporters pushed through the convention a “Morality in Foreign Policy” plank that offered a stinging critique of the Nixon-Ford-Kissinger policy of détente, easing relations with the Soviet Union. President Gerald Ford said the plank amounted to “nothing less than a slick denunciation of administration foreign policy.” Yet Ford decided not to attack the language, which would have provoked a confrontation with conservatives. Instead, he told his delegates to vote for the language with the goal of making it appear as though it was his idea. The plank helped move the party rightward on foreign policy.

The final reason to watch conventions is for the coverage itself. The media are some of the most important players throughout the campaign. How they define and package a candidate strongly affects the outcome of the race.

Reporters obsessed over Vice President Al Gore’s kiss with his wife, Tipper, following his speech in 2000; the conversation set the tone for coverage that would place great emphasis on his warmth (or lack thereof). George W. Bush used doubts about Gore’s personality to gain a large advantage as the candidate voters would rather have a beer with.

We might not have those old smoke-filled rooms anymore, but there is still a lot to look for as Democrats and Republicans gather late this summer. We live in an age of media-centered, professionally crafted, image-filled politics. Rather than talk about what we don’t have, let’s accept what exists and try to use the events as a piece of the report card we’ll all take with us into the voting booth in November.



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