Between 1964 and 2000 I had the privilege of participating in five of the 10 quadrennial Republican National Conventions, beginning as a youth volunteer in 1964, a platform committee staffer in 1976, and a parliamentary assistant in 1992, 1996 and 2000. While each of the conventions was different in its own way, they all had the same overriding aims and followed the same basic patterns in achieving those goals.
First and foremost, of course, the conventions are called for the purpose of nominating the party’s candidates for president and vice president. Secondly, they are designed to hammer-out the party’s platform of policy proposals for ensuing four years. Third, they elect party officials and fashion any changes in the national party rules. Fourth, they showcase party candidates for major national, state and local offices to give them a boost into the election season. Fifth, they strive to forge party unity by ironing out any differences between various factions within the party. And finally, they are designed to capture the public’s attention and hopefully support for their candidates in the fall elections.
All of these goals, patterns and practices took a major reboot this year due to the coronavirus pandemic and the need to eliminate large gatherings for public health reasons. It is often said that necessity is the mother of invention, and both parties were highly innovative in reshaping their conventions to conform to the necessity of safe yet engaging four-day spectacles to hold public attention through the media.
While each major party had different angles on how to best present to convention delegates, the media and the general public, the limited gatherings and separate venues did not have the same pizzazz as the massive convention hall galas of years past. Gone were the silly hats, the pep band music, the not-so-spontaneous floor demonstrations in support of a particular speaker or candidate, and the florid, booster introductions of those presenting the votes for candidate on the call of the states. In the place of these old standards, we were entertained by individual virtual appearances from around the country by a variety of pols and celebrities.
Republicans came closest to the spectacle of a convention during the final night for the president’s acceptance speech on the White House lawn, which was not without controversy over the use of federal property for campaign purposes or the lack of facial masks and social distancing.
Moreover, the Republicans intentionally failed to put forward a party platform this time around. Few people even noticed or cared, maybe because the platforms are usually ignored and forgotten before the ink is even dry on them. In 1976, the GOP platform committee spent a week prior to the full convention hammering out its policy proposals, only to have them overturned at the last minute by a substitute platform backed by California Gov. Ronald Reagan’s supporters. It was a price President Ford was willing to pay to keep peace in the family and secure the nomination. It also paved the way for Reagan’s nomination for president four years later after Ford lost to former Georgia Gov. Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterAmerica needs a new strategy for Pacific Island Countries Afghanistan and the lessons that history does not offer What's at stake — and in play — for the midterms MORE in the 1976 election. Still, it would be nice to know where each party generally intends to take the nation in the next four years.
The Democrats’ convention this year was virtually virtual all the time — some pre-recorded appearances and some live. The delegations’ chairmen gained high marks for their presentations during the call of the states from colorful and historic locations around the country.
It is clear from the immediate reactions and post-convention polls that TV and online viewership was dramatically down from the single venue conventions of the past. Moreover, network coverage was reduced to just an hour or two during prime time on each of the four nights. Because the evening sessions were so tightly programmed, there was no opportunity for the usual network reporters to comment or interview delegates during the ongoing coverage. Instead, most commentary was limited to the pre-game, post-game and Sunday talk shows. This essentially removed any excitement or tensions that often attend the media’s attempts to stir-up some controversy or debate on the floor. When everything is pre-planned and programmed, it’s not surprising that there is little public interest in staying tuned-in.
All this leads to big questions going forward. Assuming the next conventions in 2024 will not be constrained by a pandemic shutdown or other national disaster or crisis, what elements of the 2020 experience might be worth retaining or building on? One thing that received considerable appreciation from party officials and the public alike was that most speakers were much more limited than usual to short speeches. Moreover, there was less time to schedule aspiring state and local candidates who are much farther down on the ballots. While those appearances previously may have been of interest to individual state delegates and local viewers from those states, they were real snoozers from most everyone else.
It is conceivable that the next conventions will be more compact in terms of the size of audiences and time allowed for speeches, and more varied in terms of integrating the live, convention-hall action with live virtual appearances from around the nation. Conventions, after all are a way of celebrating America’s breadth, beauty and diversity, and what better way to do so than by bringing more of the country directly to delegates and viewers via satellite from down home locations?
Just as the country has evolved over the last three centuries, so too have political parties, governing bodies, and national media. It was Lincoln who aid, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.” This year’s triple crises help to underscore just how difficult and stormy these times are and how people have lost faith in their governing institutions. This is a challenge for all political parties, old, new and future, to take seriously their responsibility to help our country reinvent itself and hold out the prospect of a brighter future for all Americans.
Don Wolfensberger is a resident fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Bipartisan Policy Center, former staff director of the House Rules Committee, and author of “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays.” The views expressed are solely his own.