The news that Bill Clinton will speak in prime time at Barack Obama’s convention was not surprising. The former president, as has been noted, can do a great job of presenting the economic case for Obama — when he stays on script — and this convention will mark the sixth time he has spoken to Democrats in prime time. But the announcement made me reconsider the quadrennial question: Do the political conventions matter?
The networks, of course, have voted no, following the ratings of their viewers. The conventions simply aren’t watched by many Americans. Even the acceptance speeches gather audiences that would lead to the cancellation of the Summer Olympics. And Clinton’s speech will be up against the NFL’s opening game of the 2012 season: Giants-Cowboys. On that Wednesday in September, many more Americans will be ready for some football than another political speech.
The Obama campaign, of course, is aware of this, and did the best it could to “counter-program” with “America’s politician” against America’s game. The best speaking spot — other than Obama’s — was reserved, as it should be — for Joe Biden: perhaps the first stirrings of the 2016 campaign?
I wish Hillary was giving the Wednesday speech instead of Bill. Of course, she can’t; there are still some taboos in politics and trotting out your secretary of state at a political convention is one of them. But I’d like to hear her fire up the crowd, especially on what some Republicans in Congress are trying to do to Planned Parenthood and to funding for women’s health generally. That would be tune-in TV, at least for some of us. (Although you might want to keep one eye on the game.)
So if the conventions are sideshows, what is interesting about them? The nighttime events and the carnival that surrounds the circus. Anytime you have that many journalists in one place, you attract a crowd of would-be influencers and agenda-setters. In these ways, our political conventions have become like the conventions of so many other industries: a giant sales event interrupted by the parties — small “p”.