Dana Milbank’s don’t-miss guide to the 2012 Republican and Democratic national conventions

September 1, 2012

Let’s be honest. There hasn’t been an interesting national political convention since 1976.

But at a minimum, this year’s conventions will give us guns, strippers, a sexual harassment scandal and a traffic apocalypse. That’s not bad.

There is plenty to discover in Tampa and Charlotte beyond the obvious conclusion: that both parties picked really awful places to visit during the summer. Whether you’re attending the conventions or — lucky you — following them from afar, here’s what to watch for. This, therefore, is your indispensable guide to the 2012 conventions.

CHARLOTTE
Going for broke?

“I’m not a member of any organized political party,” said humorist Will Rogers. “I’m a Democrat.”

In 2012, the Democrats seem determined to give new meaning to that quip by Rogers, whose statue stands in the Capitol just outside the House chamber. In the run-up to the convention in Charlotte, the effort has been chaotic: overly ambitious and underfunded.

It seemed like a good idea at the time: Democrats said they would refuse corporate contributions to the convention. This sounded noble, but was financially disastrous: Corporate cash is the lifeblood of the modern political convention. Corporations had contributed more than half the cost of the 2008 Democratic convention, in Denver. Without it, Democrats couldn’t meet even scaled-back goals for Charlotte.

In early summer, Bloomberg News reported that the Charlotte host committee had raised less than $10 million, barely a quarter of the $37 million goal. Convention officials quarreled with that report, saying they were “right on track.” But they did not say what track they were on.

The first sign of trouble came in January, when Democrats shortened the convention from the usual four days to three. This was ostensibly to make room for CarolinaFest, a celebration of the South, at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, 20 miles out of town. But in late June, organizers canceled the speedway event. They claimed this was because of the logistical difficulty of getting so many people out to the speedway — but there was no dispelling the impression that the Democrats were just flat broke.

Instead of a huge NASCAR event, Democrats would instead observe the Labor Day CarolinaFest by having “family-oriented activities” in Charlotte’s Uptown neighborhood.

Stephen Colbert suggested Democrats use a tip jar with the label “Change we can believe in.” Amazingly, the convention’s executive director, Dan Murrey, followed Colbert’s advice and e-mailed Democrats to “go ahead — visit CharlotteIn2012.com and drop a few dollars in the tip jar. When you do, you’ll automatically be entered to win airfare and accommodations for the week of the convention this September in Charlotte.”

The Democrats also created a second entity, New American City, that could accept corporate contributions. Despite the supposed ban on corporate cash, corporate funds will now pay for parties.

***

Traffic apocalypse ahead

Charlotte may be the smallest metropolitan area to host a national political convention since the Democrats went to Atlantic City — in 1964. And that is creating some interesting logistical situations.

If you’re a Democratic high-roller, you probably won’t notice. If you’ve raised $1 million or more for the party, you’ll probably get a room at the posh Ritz-Carlton or similar lodging not far from the convention site. And, of course, you can always rent a home nearby; enterprising residents are offering theirs for as much as $40,000 for the week.

But for most of the 50,000 participants, and for the innocent bystanders of Charlotte, it could be a traffic apocalypse. And if you are truly at the bottom of the food chain — say, a reporter for The Washington Post — you’ll get a room at the Hampton Inn Concord/Kannapolis, 25 miles away. Depending on traffic, the drive could take, oh, about three days. But it could be worse: New York Times reporters were assigned to a hotel in the next state.

The far-flung housing is bad news for the 15,000 journalists from around the world who will be covering the convention (a similar number will be in Tampa). For journalists, conventions are like summer camp: Each media outlet gets its own work space — often a tent — near the convention site, and catered food is brought in throughout the day. After a fun-filled day at the convention (there’s rarely actual news to cover), the journalists go off in search of a watering hole. But instead of stumbling back to the hotel room, this time they’ll make the long — and uncharacteristically sober — drive to Charlotte’s exurbs.

The traffic worries contributed to the Democrats’ decision to cancel their event at the raceway. But the volume could still overwhelm Charlotte’s infrastructure. The city will temporarily relocate its main bus station, which was just across from the convention site. Security needs will close some streets and part of the light-rail line, and possibly some stations.

For Washingtonians, it will feel like home.

***

Skipping out on the fun

Perhaps it’s just as well that the Democratic convention has been shortened: There will be less time to notice all the Democratic officeholders who aren’t there.

With President Obama polling poorly, dragged down by the limping economy, many Democrats, particularly those in Republican states, decided they had more urgent matters to attend to than flying to Charlotte.

Sen. Jon Tester of Montana and Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, both in difficult reelection battles, let it be known that they wouldn’t attend. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who isn’t even promising to support Obama, won’t be in Charlotte either. A large number of House members — among them Mark Critz (Pa.), William Owens and Kathleen Hochul (N.Y.), Jim Matheson (Utah) and John Barrow (Georgia) — have sent their regrets.

Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, put the best possible face on the truancy, claiming that the absences have nothing to do with Obama’s unpopularity. “If they want to win an election, they need to be in their districts,” he said.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi followed that with a statement actually instructing Democrats to skip the convention. “I’m not encouraging anyone to go to the convention, having nothing to do with anything except I think they should stay home, campaign in their districts, use their financial and political resources to help them win their election,” Pelosi told Politico.

And besides: With the speedway event canceled, why bother?

***

Local dramas

If the Florida Republican Party is poised to embarrass national Republicans in Tampa, the North Carolina Democratic Party is in an excellent position to do the same to national Democrats in Charlotte.

We begin with the state’s Democratic governor, Bev Perdue, who is regarded favorably by only about three in 10 North Carolinians. So overwhelmingly unpopular is she that she abandoned plans to seek reelection in November. Two other North Carolina Democrats, Reps. Heath Shuler and Brad Miller, also announced their retirements. And has anybody forgotten the recent trial of John Edwards, for much of the decade the Tar Heel Democrats’ favorite son? Surely nobody has invited him to the convention, but he lives only a couple of hours away, and impulse control is not one of his strengths.

The North Carolina party leadership itself is in disarray. The executive director, Jay Parmley, resigned after he was accused by a young male staffer of showing him a picture of male genitals and caressing his leg. But the party chairman, David Parker, remained on the job despite pressure from Washington for a house cleaning.

***

Union action

It wouldn’t be a Democratic convention if there weren’t some element of friendly fire, some internecine feuding that makes little sense. In 2012, the unions are raising the requisite ruckus, because the Democrats dared to hold their convention in a right-to-work state.

Various unions said they wouldn’t contribute funds to this convention, and a dozen unions informed the Democratic National Committee that they will skip the convention entirely. Allegedly, there isn’t a single union hotel in the town, so it would pretty much have to be a camping trip for union members, anyway.

The building trades division of the AFL-CIO informed the DNC that it would skip the convention, complaining that the party selected the “state with the lowest unionization rate in the country.”

If the union members are really steamed, they can join protesters who plan to make a scene just as delegates arrive. The Coalition to March on Wall Street South has received a permit and is planning a “series of actions.”

It’s not entirely clear what the protesters are protesting, but the movement seems to be an all-purpose liberal complaint. The group’s “Charlotte Principles” say it is opposed to oppression and in favor of social, economic and environmental justice. The demonstrators plan to “express our many grievances with the two-party system, the banks and corporations.” But fear not: This is no Chicago ’68. It’s a “safe, legally permitted, family friendly” protest, organizers claim.

It is, in other words, likely to be dreadfully boring.

***

Storm clouds brewing

In 2008, Barack Obama rolled the dice and got lucky: His acceptance speech at the open-air Invesco Field in Denver was a meteorological risk, but the weather cooperated, and tens of thousands of Democrats went home happy after the nominee’s speech, on a stage resembling a Greek temple.

This time, Obama is raising the stakes: His acceptance speech will be at Bank of America Stadium, which can accommodate 74,000 people. But Charlotte is not Denver. In Charlotte at that time of year, average high temperatures are in the mid-80s, thunderstorms roll in every few evenings — and Bank of America Stadium does not have a roof.

Will the weather gods who smiled on Obama’s Greek temple smile again on his humbler platform in Charlotte?

***

Heeeeeeeere’s ... Hillary?

There’s little chance for drama on the floor of the Democratic convention, because President Obama had no serious primary challenge and because he already has chosen his running mate. Or has he?

Through much of the president’s term, a rumor has surfaced repeatedly that Obama would drop Vice President Biden and make Hillary Clinton his running mate. There has been no indication whatsoever that such a thing might actually occur, but this does little to quell the speculation.

So let’s revive that rumor again:

Clinton won’t attend the convention because, the State Department says, of her nonpartisan duties as secretary of state. But maybe that’s just a ruse, to keep her out of view until she is introduced in Charlotte as ... the next vice president of the United States! With Obama awarding Bill Clinton the top speaking role Wednesday night, bumping Biden from the VP’s usual spot, there’s already a time slot available for the Hillary surprise!

Remember: You heard it here first.

Dana Milbank is a political columnist for The Post. To comment on this story, send e-mail to wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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