Politics & Policy

The Greatest Show on Earth: Our National Political Conventions

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan at the 2012 Republican convention. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)
They offer clues to how the campaigns will unfold and how the winners will govern.

Judging by the past, the upcoming political conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia will materially affect our national politics, even if the winning candidates have already been determined. Conventions matter — to the presidential nominees, to every candidate, national and local, running in 2016, to the party faithful, and to the public seeking the right leadership.

A national convention is a combination of things — it’s a political rally, a Fourth of July celebration, an evangelical tent meeting. It’s political, patriotic, and passionate, susceptible to waves of emotion that can upset the best-laid plans of organizers.

In 1968, for example, Mayor Richard Daley and the other Democratic bosses were not prepared for the confrontational tactics of the anti–Vietnam War movement. The Democratic convention, replete with violent demonstrations, clouds of tear gas, and shouted expletives from the podium, was telecast across the country and helped elect Richard Nixon, who narrowly won the presidency over Democrat Hubert Humphrey.

In 1980, the possibility of a “dream ticket” of Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford swept the Republican convention until Ford conceded in a television interview that the arrangement would amount to a “co-presidency.” Reagan immediately dismissed a Reagan-Ford ticket as an “impossible dream” and placed a call to George H. W. Bush, who happily accepted the invitation to be Reagan’s vice president.

There will be three things in particular to watch for at the 2016 conventions: the selection of the vice presidential candidate, the content of the party platform, and the acceptance speech by the nominee. Usually, in all these areas, nominees move to solidify their political base and outline the major themes of the general campaign. I say “usually” because if we look at previous conventions, we sometimes encounter the unexpected.

In 1960, political experts were unanimous in their opinion that Lyndon Johnson, the ultra-powerful Senate majority leader, would never accept second place on the Democratic ticket. But he did agree to be John F. Kennedy’s running mate and helped JFK to carry Texas and enough other states to defeat Nixon by the thinnest of margins.

The two parties’ sharply dissimilar views on abortion have been demonstrated by actions taken at their national conventions.

Ideas matter, to Democrats as well as Republicans. The two parties’ sharply dissimilar views on abortion have been demonstrated by actions taken at their national conventions. Governor Bob Casey of Pennsylvania was denied the opportunity to speak at the 1992 Democratic convention because he wanted to deliver a strong anti-abortion speech. In contrast, pro-life Republicans insisted that the 1996 Republican platform contain the same uncompromising anti-abortion language as in previous platforms — and they prevailed.

Images matter. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter chased Senator Ted Kennedy around the platform in pursuit of the classic raised-arms victory pose. The senator conspicuously evaded the president, leaving a frustrated Carter for all of America to see. In 1976, President Ford graciously invited his challenger, Ronald Reagan, to join him on the platform and say a few words. Before Reagan was through speaking, delegates were wondering if they had nominated the wrong man. And polls revealed that many voters were swayed by Barack Obama’s eloquent 2008 acceptance address and its dramatic setting of soaring Grecian columns and colored lights, a production worthy of Cecil B. DeMille.

Words impact the decisions of voters, as in these acceptance addresses: Bush 41’s fateful “Read my lips — no new taxes” pledge, Barry Goldwater’s defiant “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” promise.

For all these reasons, a national political convention is the Greatest Political Show on Earth, and thanks to Fox News, CNN, C-SPAN and all the other networks and the social media, admission for the American voter is free.

— Lee Edwards is a Distinguished Fellow in the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at the Heritage Foundation.

Most Popular

Elections

Put Up or Shut Up on These Accusations, Hillary

Look, one 2016 candidate being prone to wild and baseless accusations is enough. Appearing on Obama campaign manager David Plouffe’s podcast, Hillary Clinton suggested that 2016 Green Party candidate Jill Stein was a “Russian asset,” that Republicans and Russians were promoting the Green Party, and ... Read More
Culture

Feminists Have Turned on Pornography

Since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the feminist movement has sought to condemn traditional sexual ethics as repressive, misogynistic, and intolerant. As the 2010s come to a close, it might be fair to say that mainstream culture has reached the logical endpoint of this philosophy. Whereas older Americans ... Read More
White House

The Impeachment Defense That Doesn’t Work

If we’ve learned anything from the last couple of weeks, it’s that the “perfect phone call” defense of Trump and Ukraine doesn’t work. As Andy and I discussed on his podcast this week, the “perfect” defense allows the Democrats to score easy points by establishing that people in the administration ... Read More
National Review

Farewell

Today is my last day at National Review. It's an incredibly bittersweet moment. While I've only worked full-time since May, 2015, I've contributed posts and pieces for over fifteen years. NR was the first national platform to publish my work, and now -- thousands of posts and more than a million words later -- I ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Elizabeth Warren Is Not Honest

If you want to run for office, political consultants will hammer away at one point: Tell stories. People respond to stories. We’ve been a story-telling species since our fur-clad ancestors gathered around campfires. Don’t cite statistics. No one can remember statistics. Make it human. Make it relatable. ... Read More
PC Culture

Defiant Dave Chappelle

When Dave Chappelle’s Netflix special Sticks & Stones came out in August, the overwhelming response from critics was that it was offensive, unacceptable garbage. Inkoo Kang of Slate declared that Chappelle’s “jokes make you wince.” Garrett Martin, in the online magazine Paste, maintained that the ... Read More
Elections

Democrats Think They Can Win without You

A  few days ago, Ericka Anderson, an old friend of National Review, popped up in the pages of the New York Times lamenting that “the Democratic presidential field neglects abundant pools of potential Democrat converts, leaving persuadable audiences — like independents and Trump-averse, anti-abortion ... Read More
Economy & Business

Andrew Yang, Snake Oil Salesman

Andrew Yang, the tech entrepreneur and gadfly, has definitely cleared the bar for a successful cause candidate. Not only has he exceeded expectations for his polling and fundraising, not only has he developed a cult following, not only has he got people talking about his signature idea, the universal basic ... Read More