Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Party Conventions Matter

I read a piece the other day that lamented the arrival of 15,000 journalists in Denver to cover the Democratic convention.

Why did 15,000 journalists need to cover an uninteresting event? The nomination was settled, so why report on it at all? And, as a voter, why pay attention when nothing was happening?

I was troubled by this report because it assumed that the only reason conventions exist at all, is to decide the party's general election nominee. This is most certainly not true.

Yes, party conventions today simply ratify the decision made by primary and caucus voters many months ago. The excitement swirling around who might be the nominee, whether a dark horse might emerge, and party bosses pledging their state delegation's vote en masse are long gone. The death knell rang with the arrival of the primary election and the change in Democratic convention nominating rules away from the 2/3rds rule in the 1930s.

But the nomination of presidential candidate is one role of the party convention. There are plenty of other things conventions do and these things are worth observing.

First, conventions serve to bring the party together under one tent and banner, to prepare for the general election canvass in the fall. Old wounds are healed and activists are reinvigorated for the fall. We saw Hillary and Bill Clinton attempt to bring their supporters under the Barack Obama tent in Denver earlier this week.

Second, they allow political parties to stake out their issue agenda for the fall election. Conventions allow them to set the terms of the debate and what the party's stance is going into the election. Parties are responsible: they develop and adhere to a set of principles. Where are those principles articulated? At the convention.

Third, they excite the activist base. Monday night at the Democratic convention was all about getting the activists excited for the hard work ahead. Monday night was about the party's history, and a tribute to its past titans.

Fourth, they allow politicians from different parts of the country to introduce themselves to a national audience. Barack Obama certainly benefited from his speech to the Democratic convention in 2004. And our own Governor Schweitzer might benefit in the future from his rousing convention speech this year.

Finally, they are about defining the opponent. The Democratic Convention said very clearly how they want to define John McCain: More of the same.

In closing, conventions are important to the election campaign even if the nominee isn't in doubt. I urge you to tune in now, if you haven't already.

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