The Democratic National Committee, we learned Thursday, has wisely decided against holding its convention as scheduled in July in Milwaukee. Bowing to the coronavirus threat, it has pushed the date back to Aug. 17, which is a week before the Republicans get together in Charlotte to nominate President Trump to a second term.
But here’s another Idea: Get rid of the conventions. Entirely. Not just this year but forever. They are gaudy, week-long infomercials, funded by lobbyists, offering but a few moments that can hold a decent-sized television audience. Taxpayers of the cities that host them are usually left holding a big bill.
Once upon a time, there was a reason to hold these quadrennial rituals. There was no primary process as we would recognize it today. Major-party conventions — the first of which was an 1831 gathering of the short-lived, anti-Jacksonian National Republicans in Baltimore — started as a reform measure to wrest power from the caucuses of congressmen and state legislators who decided who the party nominees would be.
Once states started holding primaries and caucuses in the 20th century, the importance of the conventions began to evaporate. Not until Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1932, did a presidential contender even show up in person to accept his party’s nomination. Since 1968, conventions have simply affirmed the nomination of the candidate who won the most delegates in the state contests.
Still, in just about every campaign season, we will hear predictions that this — finally! — will be the year in which we see a “brokered” convention. That bubble burst once again in 2020, when former vice president Joe Biden cleaned up against Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Super Tuesday. The last convention that even went beyond a first ballot was the 1952 Democratic gathering that selected Illinois Gov. Adlai E. Stevenson II.
Conventions don’t do all that much to help bring about party unity, either.
When there has been a spirited contest for the nomination, conventions often become last-ditch opportunities for the losers to air their platforms and offer a sour reminder to their disappointed supporters of what could have been. Jimmy Carter had to chase Sen. Ted Kennedy around the Democratic convention stage to even get a handshake in 1980. Jesse Jackson’s soaring oratory in 1988 only reminded people of how bland Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis was. Republican runner-up Pat Buchanan went full culture warrior at the 1992 GOP convention, doing what he could to erase the last traces of the kinder and gentler Republicanism of George H.W. Bush. And Sen. Ted Cruz, the second-place Republican finisher in 2016, pointedly withheld his endorsement of Donald Trump, telling the delegates, “Vote your conscience.”
This year, once the tedious roll call of the states comes to an end in Milwaukee, it is hard to imagine that Sanders supporters will be lining up to congratulate the Biden delegates.
And then there are the party platforms: Who even knows what is in these manifestos of their supposed positions on the issues? As Jill Lepore wrote in the New Yorker in 2016: “Platform-committee meetings are chest-thumping contests between warring clans within the parties; in exchange for conceding, defeated candidates tend to have a lot of influence over the platform.”
But actual nominees are not bound by them. Did Trump even read the 2016 platform?
So why not just ditch the conventions? Let each party buy a block of time on the networks in which its nominee can give his acceptance speech, accompanied by one of those heart-rending video retrospectives. The standard-bearers, their running mates and their collected families can join hands and raise them for the cameras. Maybe drop a few balloons and some confetti on them, just for old times' sake.
And then let the circus move on.