Potemkin Conventions: Why Are We Doing This Again?

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Win McNamee / Getty Images

News reports for Tropical Storm Isaac appear on screens ahead of the Republican National Convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in Florida on Aug. 26, 2012

Remind me: Why are we doing this?

That was the question bouncing around in my head after I spent my first 24 hours in Tampa on increasingly soggy ground. The twin horrors of Tropical Storm Isaac and the Nielsen ratings have already combined to wipe out Monday night’s planned activities, and you know what? Nobody cares.

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Political conventions are over. Once, they meant something. I’d leap into the most terrifying of time machines to attend an old-school political convention with armies of local pols battling it out under a thick cloud of blue tobacco smoke in a stuffy convention hall, while the string-pulling bosses cut pragmatic deals over whiskey and judicial appointments in lavish hotel suites. Those conventions had drama because outcomes were unknown and stakes were high. Today delegates are bound through the application of TV-ad-ratings points, not machine deals. Delegates sit in the hall like background actors on a TV show, milling about to the director’s orders, wearing costumes and being denied a single line. It seems like a shabby ending to a great tradition. It’s time for a mercy killing.

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Sure, these conventions are an economic godsend to party planners, podium constructors and local police for the overtime. All this activity creates a powerful inertia, which is why the Conventions Inc. industry of both parties has united to keep the event unchanged for years. But should they change it? I love eating Bloomberg’s free food and taking a free National Railroad Ties and Trestles Association hat as much as anyone, and I respect convention staff members for being pros who work very hard. But one must ask: Does all this money and effort and schmooze and confetti really do much to win a campaign? I’m dubious.

Of course, a candidate’s acceptance speech is a huge deal, with a big audience and a potentially powerful impact. Along with the three fall debates, the convention speech is one of the four most important hours of an entire campaign.

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So keep the two big TV speeches. But do we really need four days — three if you decide to hold a convention in the Gulf during hurricane season — to get there? Do we really need the droning speech by the guy who lost or the first-ever Laotian American state representative or the union howler who is a teleprompter for predictable outrage over the other party’s entitlement plan? Why not cut the conventions down to the commercials they are and focus on the stars? Why not focus on two tight prime-time hours, held on one night or even across two nights? Hour one: Stinkerfest, why the other guy is so horrible (maybe in 3-D for 2016!). Hour two: the ticket is introduced and the candidates speak. Balloons drop, the nation is saved, back to the campaign trail. The supersize four-day conventions made great sense in 1920.

But it’s time for an update.

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