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Get Ready to Yawn—”Conventional” Means “Lacking Originality”

by WS Editor

Aug 1, 2004 | Politics


It all looks so boring and predictable that the three major television networks planned to give it minimum convention coverage, skipping one night entirely. They are scheduling a total of three evening hours during the four-day Democratic and Republican conventions. The Athens Olympics, beginning in August, will get more.

At Boston’s security-paranoid FleetCenter, surrounded by closed commuter highways and train tunnels shut down for security, and by hundreds of peeking, see-it-all video cameras, the Democratic convention delegates will hear Al Gore, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, to be introduced by Senator Hillary Clinton. Then the Clintons vanish.

Senator John Kerry, who will no longer be identified in news stories as “the presumptive” Democratic presidential nominee, spent a pre-convention weekend at his seaside home in Nantucket working on his acceptance speech, drafted in longhand.

Before that retreat, Kerry blasted President Bush for rejecting an invitation to speak at a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People convention—the fourth Bush snub in four years. Standing before the NAACP delegates in Philadelphia, Kerry drew strong applause by saying that “the president may be too busy to speak to you, but I’ve got news for you. He’s going to have plenty of time after November 2.”

TV coverage of party conventions began in 1952 at the Democratic convention in Chicago, where Republicans also met that year to nominate General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Households with TV sets then heard Ike say, “I shall go to Korea,” which gave him a landslide victory over Adlai Stevenson by taking advantage of Cold War patriotism.

The outstanding Washington political magazine The National Journal has just published a fascinating history of the scores of wartime political conventions—in 1812, 1864, 1916, 1952 and on to 1968. It finds that “holding a convention in the midst of a war can be perilous for a president—or for an opposition political party” and that incumbent wartime presidents tend to invoke “divine intervention.”

It may or may not be the Lord’s will, but this year the Bush administration is reported to be quietly praying for a U.S. kill or capture of Osama bin Laden before Election Day.

There will be lengthier convention coverage on PBS and on the cable channels C-Span, CNN, MSNBC, CNBC and the Fox News Channel. But there may not be much to watch.

But for campaign addicts there will also be reports on dozens of Internet websites. Howard Dean’s former web-savvy campaign manager, Joe Trippi, is out with a book titled The Revolution Will Not Be Televised—The Internet and the Overthrow of Everything. He may be right.

For the first time the computer-pecking writers of political “blogs”—that’s Internetese for web logs—are being given press credentials at the Democrats’ Boston convention, adding a few more Internet news hounds to the thousands of regular journalists and 35,000 delegates and guests in attendance.

New York Times editorial wonders whether the boring conventions will tame even the mostly liberal bloggers into a compliant “centrism.”

To check that out, try a handy blog index of “everything progressive on the Web” atwww.movingideas.org/links. One new blog solicits support for the impeachment of the president for his war strategy and violations of civil liberties. It is at www.ImpeachBush.org.

The Los Angeles Times calls the conventions “choreographed coronations,” but there will be at least one unexpected podium appearance. With the endorsement of his mother, Nancy Reagan, Ron Reagan, the late president’s politically independent son, will appear before the Democrats’ convention in Boston to praise their party platform’s endorsement of more stem cell research on Alzheimer’s disease, which took his father’s life. President Bush has blocked federal grants to pursue that.

At Reagan’s funeral Ron Reagan “Bushwhacked” the sitting president by saying that his dad “never made the fatal mistake of so many politicians—wearing his faith on his sleeve to gain political advantage.” Ron Reagan is a commentator on MSNBC and, while in Boston, will also appear with a chorus of Democratic senators and liberal Hollywood stars at a fund-raiser for a group called the Creative Coalition, which promotes public financing for the arts, another Bush no-no.

Neither party objects to another kind of financing. It is mostly unseen in news reports, but it is not at all unusual for corporate and other monied interest groups to become heavyweight “donors” to both party conventions. Some of the most muscular special-interest lobbying of members of Congress and other influential Washingtonians is done there.

According to some bookkeeping by the Campaign Finance Institute, a watchdog group that tries to monitor the not-fully-disclosed lobbyist pelf passed out to both party conventions’ “host committees,” the Democratic convention in Boston has collected $39.4 million from corporations, unions and individuals, and the Republicans have taken in $64 million.

A HELL OF A TOWN—New York City has a historic place in party convention history, and it may make some protest history this year. The Republican convention in the solidly Democratic city begins on August 30, and why the G.O.P. picked N.Y.C. remains a mystery to some Republicans. To others, the city’s connection with 9/11 is plain. But exploiting the site of the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history for political gain may undermine the centerpiece of the Bush campaign—Bush’s alleged war on terrorism.
The New Yorker magazine says “a case can be made that no political assembly in history has inspired more elaborate and widespread opposition planning than the impending Republican National Convention.” The magazine has counted more than 130 activist organizations that are planning anti-Bush protest demonstrations in Manhattan. As at the Democrats’ convention in Boston, some of the picketing in New York is expected to be staged by city police and fire fighter unions, demonstrating for a pay raise.

On display among Times Square’s sweeping gallery of huge commercial billboards and flashing neon lights will be a two-story-high sign sponsored by Project Billboard, an anti-Bush group, showing a dove over the words: “Democracy Is Best Taught by Example, Not by War.” Another display, of flashing numbers, will show the multimillion-dollar cost of the war in Iraq.

Although it is downtown from Times Square and the Madison Square Garden convention site, Wall Street is effectively fleeing the jurisdiction. The stock market won’t close, but during the protests many of the major money-management firms—worried about terrorism—plan to move their operations to remote undisclosed locations, some of them across the Hudson River in New Jersey.

One of the few newsy items at the Democrats’ convention will be the final decision of Senator Kerry on whether to accept or reject the $75 million grant in federal campaign funds offered to both presidential candidates for the final pre-election months. For a while the Kerry camp even pondered whether Kerry would formally accept the Democratic nomination until Bush accepted his, because taking the federal pre-election grant upon nomination prohibits other fund-raising and spending.

The Bush campaign has until the president is formally nominated in August to decide whether to take the $75 million or raise and spend more.

CREAKY PLATFORMS—The platforms are really a kind of campaign “vote for me” coat rack—hang it there and forget it. This year their unargued adoption is expected to get little, if any, TV attention. Neither party’s actual administration, when elected and installed, is bound to follow the platform plan.

In negotiations with Ohio Representative Dennis Kucinich’s pacifist advocates, Senator Kerry’s backers arranged some woolly platform language that avoids a party proposal for the quick withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. It supports a U.S. exit from Iraq “when appropriate, so that the military support needed by a sovereign government will no longer be seen as the direct coordination of any American military presence.” It will take some good luck in Iraq to get that.

Antiwar delegates at the Democrats’ platform-drafting meetings managed to save a sentence noting that “people of good will disagree about whether America should have gone to war in Iraq.” That reflected a recent New York Times/CBS News poll disclosing that 56 percent of the Democrats it questioned said that American troops should “leave Iraq as soon as possible, even if Iraq is not completely stable,” and not stay “as long as it takes to make sure Iraq is a stable democracy”—not quite the platform’s view.

Much of the Democratic platform is devoted to national security, including an overhaul of the intelligence agencies and a rejection of President Bush’s “doctrine of unilateral pre-emption.” The platform calls for raising the minimum wage, for protecting Social Security and Medicare against privatization, for protecting abortion rights, for health insurance coverage for all, for new environmental protections, for higher taxes on the wealthy, for more stem cell research, and for continuing the ban on the sale of assault weapons.

WHAT ELECTION?—It sounded like partisan alarmism, but a few Bush administration stalwarts, including Tom Ridge, the Secretary of Homeland Security, made Al Qaeda a pre-convention issue by suggesting that Osama bin Laden’s terrorists have been planning an election-year attack on the United States—maybe on one of the party conventions. Or worse, an attack at a later date that might raise questions about postponing the November 2 election.
There is no doubt that Bin Laden is anti-Bush—and anti-Kerry, too. Among other things, theNew Republic magazine has said that Bush is pressing Pakistan to catch or kill Osama bin Laden before Election Day. And as the Wall Street Journal puts it, “there is ample reason to believe that a terrorist attack actually would help the sitting president, prompting millions of Americans to rally around him in a time of crisis.”

What did not help him was the idea of canceling the election, brought to light by speculation that had to be publicly rejected by Bush administration officials. Only Congress, which sets the election day, can change it—and it is hard to imagine a situation where it would.

Of course, there remain some Election Day nightmares. Florida is still grappling with some of the same polling place problems that helped to throw the 2000 presidential election into chaos and give the victory to the popular vote loser. After rejecting faulty new electronic voting machines, some Ohio counties are going to continue using the Florida-type punch card devices.

WHAT CONSTITUTION?—Despite persistent calls from President Bush, Republican leaders knew ahead of time that they didn’t have the two-thirds majority in the Senate needed to pass an anti–gay marriage amendment to the Constitution.

After tying up the already paralyzed Senate for three and a half days of preachy speeches, the Republicans fell 12 votes short on a resolution to continue the sanctimonious debate, and 19 votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed to send the amendment to the states for ratification.

Six Republicans and the Independent Senator James Jeffords of Vermont joined 43 Democrats in voting to close the time-consuming sermons. Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) called it all a debate “not about changing the Constitution; this debate was about changing the subject in the presidential campaign.”

Cued ahead of time on the roll call outcome, Senators Kerry and Edwards did not have to keep their promise to fly into Washington for the cloture vote.

The amendment was a proposal that Senator John McCain (R-AZ) called “antithetical in every way to the core philosophy of Republicans.” McCain’s “nay” vote was joined by those of Republican senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, John Sununu of New Hampshire and Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado.

Lynne Cheney, Vice President Dick Cheney’s wife, also joined the critics, saying that the recognition of marriage should remain under state-government control. In the end, the amendment’s defeat was seen as a rebuff to Bush. The Washington Post called it “a big election year defeat” for Bush.

But now Republican election strategists are struggling to make same-sex marriage an issue on the Election Day ballots of a dozen or more states in hope of turning out religious-right, pro-Bush voters. An estimated 4 million Christian conservatives did not vote in the 2000 election.

DEBATES TO COME—In 2000 the pre-election presidential debates became yawners that turned off viewers and voters. These confrontations are tightly controlled by the so-called Commission on Presidential Debates. Third-party contenders like Ralph Nader, deserted this year as the nominee of the Green Party (“Green” may stand for “Get Republicans Elected Every November”) have been blackballed from the network-televised debates.

But this year an upstart group called the Citizens’ Debate Commission hopes to host five 90-minute debates among the also-rans at college campuses across the nation. C-Span, at least, will be there.
Closely watched will be the debates between Vice President Dick Cheney and his Democratic challenger, Senator John Edwards—if Cheney is there.

Speculation on whether Cheney will have a second-term candidacy has received front page attention in the New York Times (July 15). The Times called it all “far-fetched,” but found that “racing through” Washington is a theory that Cheney has dismissed and replaced his longtime physician so that he now has a doctor who will tell him that his heart problems make him unfit to run. Cheney replied that the president is “very clear that he doesn’t want to break up the team.” He is booked as a prime-time speaker at the Republican convention.

To put some more smiling faces on their convention agenda, Republican strategists have also booked Senator McCain and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for some televised spots. The “Terminator’s” wife, Maria Shriver, a member of the Kennedy family, was booked to appear with the Democrats in Boston.

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