The Republican Convention

The Republican Convention

The Republican Convention

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Nelson Polsby
7:34 a.m.  Monday  8/12/96

I'm going to offer a mild dissent from the proposition that national party conventions are quite as significant as Herb's introduction makes them out to be. Maybe Special Olympics rather than Olympics. In the last two or three decades, they have wholly lost their decision-making functions. They are now primarily an advertising medium.

To be sure, as advertising they may be important in that lots of people are paying attention and they are conveying information that voters may find useful. We must bear in mind however that most voters have already made up their minds how they will vote (predominantly according to party habit) and that on the whole Republicans turn out and vote a lot more loyally than Democrats. Thus this week's events are playing mostly to the faithful and therefore ought not to be expected to change many minds.

Of course it is in the interest of the news media to conceal these fairly standard facts and to hype events of the week so as to exaggerate their possible consequences. Thus I assume the news media will be tacitly colluding with Pat Buchanan and company to magnify the threat of embarrassment to Dole, thus possibly depriving Dole of his post-convention "bounce" in the public opinion polls. Ordinarily a pretty decent bounce is a natural consequence of a week's worth of more or less favorable advertising.

So I guess all week long we will be asking ourselves whether this or that event helps or hurts Dole's bounce, rather like one of these focus groups we hear so much about.

On the GOP platform. Two points. First, it doesn't bind anybody to anything. It's not an especially good predictor of the shape of future public policy, since that depends on the preferences of the people who get elected to Congress and the presidency, not on language drafted by the rather ad hoc platform committee. Second, as advertising. Did the platform do enough to ameliorate Dole's gender gap (i.e., placate those well-educated GOP women who are pro-choice) and keep the Christian Right in the fold? My conjecture is that public opinion surveys will show yes to the second and no to the first, i.e., that insofar as the platform is salient to Christian Right voters Dole will retain their support but well-educated Republican women will perceive the platform as a defeat. This is what the media seem to be telling us to believe, a rather significant factor in determining the shape of public opinion.

Herb Stein
7:50 a.m.  Monday  8/12/96

The introduction of Jack Kemp to the picture raises questions about the theatrics and the ideology of the convention. There was already a question whether the packaging planned for the convention was going to overshadow the candidate, Bob Dole, and the viewers would get a clearer impression of the container than of the thing contained. Will Kemp further diminish the image of Dole? The decisions about the platform gave a certain impression of the party. Will the prominence of Kemp in the proceedings along with major speeches by Susan Molinari and Colin Powell to the list of principal speakers tend to soften that impression, making it look "kinder and gentler," in George Bush's phrase? Are we going back to (hush) Rockefeller Republicanism?

Christopher Hitchens
8:25 a.m.  Monday  8/12/96

After a primary period which had virtually no electorate, and a campaign with virtually no issues, we enter the season of the convention without drama. The advent of Jack Kemp, who at least provides a splash of color in this drab scene (and who is, as they say, a "man of ideas"--and such ideas!) is strictly speaking nothing to do with the convention itself. His nomination will not be opposed, and the man who picked him has already said that he hasn't had the time to be reading the party platform. This just happens to be the one week in four years when everybody agrees to forget what they know during the rest of the cycle--that the vice presidency itself is worth no more than what a former holder of the office described as "a pitcher of warm spit" (except that he didn't say "spit"). It will, however, be interesting to see if former Sen. Dole reiterates his intention to serve only for four years. Much of the subtext of this election derives from the fact that it is the last one in this millennium, and that we are picking a president to take us to the year 2000. Dole's age (and in a related way, his choice of running-mate) acquire additional significance in light of this quasi-karmic factoid. (When, incidentally, will one of those endless and respectful interviews with young Ralph Reed feature the question: "Do you agree with Pat Robertson when he says that whoever is elected this fall will not serve out his term because the end of days will intervene?" Just a daydream of mine.)

This leaves little for standard commentators to consider save the old mantra of "unity" versus "disunity"; a variation on the perennial Washington paradigm of "partisan" versus "bi-partisan." Hegel remarks somewhere that a political party does not truly exist until it has been divided against itself: These days that represents another way of saying that partisan and bi-partisan, unity and disunity, mean the same thing. Disunity exists in order that unity may be arrived at; partisanship is only the foreplay or consensus. The role of the press in insisting upon unity as a precondition for good coverage is a story in itself but not one that will be written this week.

Karlyn Bowman
8:52 a.m.  Monday  8/12/96

The early August Los Angeles Times poll finds that only 58 percent of Dole supporters (compared to 71 percent of Clinton supporters) feel certain they will vote for their man in November. Dole's first task in San Diego is to move that number--to solidify the Republican base. The choice of Kemp will help him do that. In two surveys of Republican convention delegates taken in 1992, Jack Kemp was the first choice for the 1996 nominee. Interestingly, Dole wasn't even mentioned. Kemp helps with the second convention assignment--to energize the regulars and generate excitement among them and in the country. To the extent people watch, the Monday night lineup helps with this task, too.

Voters still don't know Bob Dole well. That's not surprising. Although the networks increased their political coverage this spring over the coverage four years ago, viewers haven't heard much from Dole. The average soundbite for GOP candidates during the primaries (the latest data available) was 7.2 seconds. Only 3 percent of candidate soundbites exceeded 20 seconds. That's down from an average soundbite for candidates of 43.2 seconds in1968. In San Diego, Dole will get a clear shot to tell the country why he wants to be president and how a Dole presidency would differ from a Clinton one.

Is the GOP platform a problem for him? In an interview last week, Haley Barbour, the RNC chair, was asked if he was going to read the GOP platform. His response: "When I get a chance. I never have read any of the others." I doubt many of us have read a platform or know what's in this one except for the abortion and immigration planks. What the country will learn through the press discussion of it is that it's a very conservative document for a conservative country.

Today, only about 10 percent of voters say they make up their minds during the conventions. In the past, when conventions provided some drama, as many as 3 in 10 voters said they decided at this point. This spring, Market Strategies, a Republican polling firm, tried to find out why people don't watch. Those surveyed said conventions aren't interesting, compelling, or informative. That probably explains the dismal Nielsen ratings. In 1992, the five network average rating for the Dems was 4.4 and it was 4.1 for the GOP. Compare that to a 22.8 rating for ER in an average week in May. ER reruns have higher ratings than conventions.

Alan Brinkley
9:39 a.m.  Monday  8/12/96

To me, the most interesting stories to come out of San Diego during the past week were not the predictable denouement of the all-too-reasonable-and-even-tempered pro-choice revolt, and not the mild surprise of the choice of Jack Kemp for vice president, but the descriptions of the unprecedented level of orchestration that Republican planners are imposing on these proceedings.

Conventions have been organized around television for years, of course, and whatever spontaneity they once had has long since been wrung out of them. The fevered efforts by the Dole campaign, successful it now appears, to foreclose any serious discussion of abortion on the convention floor is nothing new; parties have been trying to keep controversy off the air for years.

But the nakedness with which the planners in San Diego are attempting to manage their own television coverage is quite striking. The proceedings in San Diego seem about to become, quite literally, an infomercial--a series of short, canned speeches interspersed among prepared video clips indistinguishable from advertising; intentionally dull material inserted here and there to encourage the networks to cut away for commercials on the party's, not their own, schedule; party stalwarts giving speeches written by and rehearsed for the convention media-meisters (or, barring that, not speaking at all--as in the case of Pete Wilson and Bill Weld); even a separate deal with Pat Robertson's cable network for gavel-to-gavel coverage packaged by the party itself. (No similar spotlight has yet been placed on the Democrats' convention planners, but it would be surprising if they were not doing much the same thing.)

Clearly there will be something interesting in watching how the Dole campaign chooses to package its image this week, and how Dole himself handles his critical acceptance speech. But at least equally interesting will be watching the coverage itself to see how extensively the networks allow themselves to be manipulated by the party. Now that the GOP media strategy has been widely reported, will the networks feel obliged--as I believe they should--to cover that strategy themselves, to explain to viewers what the Republicans are trying to do? Will they resist this elaborate management of their own journalistic efforts, avoid the canned material on the podium, and pursue stories of their own choosing? And if they do, will the Republicans--who evidently view the convention as the equivalent of paid advertising time due to them--cry foul? All of this will be complicated, of course, by the vastly scaled-down character of network coverage: less air time than ever before; fewer reporters, cameramen, and producers; less opportunity for independent reporting.

If, as seems likely, nothing happens in San Diego that is not part of a focus-group-approved script, is it news or is it advertising? And if it is the latter, do journalists have any obligation to cover it as if it were not? If the media decides to resist the party's media strategy, the result might be a convention even more damaging to the party than the fractious brawl the Republicans so feared and have worked so strenuously to avoid.

Nelson Polsby
12:13 p.m.  Monday  8/12/96

On the vice presidential pick. This is Dole's last big chance to elicit some pre-convention bounce from the public opinion polls. Basically, two conflicting theories informed the run-up to Dole's decision. The first gave heavy weight to alleged disaffection within Dole's electoral base, sometimes expressed as a need to placate Pat Buchanan. This was the reasoning supporting the pick of a Midwestern governor, as though Dole himself were not enough of a Midwestern mainstream Republican.

The second theory took note of the fact that Republicans win presidential elections by moving the great masses of middle Americans--middle class, middle income, middle aged, ideologically moderate--three to five points their way. Picking Kemp looks to me like a pursuit of this strategy. Kemp is an indefatigable campaigner who preaches inclusiveness to Republicans.

My view is that Dole picked the right strategy. I am more hesitant about whether he picked the right running mate. There seems to me to be at least one weakness in a Kemp vice presidency that reaches beyond the strengths he brings to the campaign. The most important thing a vice president does, as stand-by equipment, is get along with the president. There are reports floating around that Kemp has a hard time getting along with peers, including, in the past, Dole. Despite his well-publicized interest in ideas, Kemp has in the past evidently had some difficulty impressing colleagues with his substantive seriousness. Even if this is true, it would not very much impede Kemp from campaigning effectively. But it would make a difference to a Kemp vice presidency (which I would therefore expect to be more distanced from the president in the Eisenhower-Nixon rather than the Carter-Mondale or Clinton-Gore mold) and certainly to a Kemp presidency if Dole's age suddenly caught up with him or in the event of some other calamity.

Next point. A massive change over the last two decades in presidential nominating politics, thoroughly documented in the scholarly literature, is the removal of state parties from influence in the process. Nominally, delegates are representing state parties. Actually, they represent the candidates who won the right in the state primaries to designate their own delegates. This may help to explain to those unfamiliar with our system why the governor of the state hosting the convention, a former mayor of the convention city, and a Republican in good standing is not as a matter of course addressing the convention, not even to greet the delegates visiting his home town. The presidential nominee's political handlers, who are in charge of the script for all proceedings, don't want to risk an uncontrolled few minutes from that well-known boat-rocker, Pete Wilson.

In small ways like this, the presidential party shows how different it is from the traditional amalgam of state parties that constituted the national party before the "reforms" of 1969-'70.

Herb Stein
1:51 p.m.  Monday  8/12/96

Much of the discussion relates to the heavy scripting of the convention, depriving the event, for the media and its viewers, of all suspense. It seems to me that the convention planners had a choice between a safe convention that no one would watch and a risky convention that somebody would watch. They may have thought that they could have a safe convention that people would watch because they would provide lots of entertainment. That probably was not possible. The viewer has the option of lots more entertaining programs without the drag of the business end of the convention. Apparently the convention planners chose a safe convention that no one would watch. We may be going back before television, even before radio, when the public was not observing the convention in real time but was reading about it in the next day's newspapers.

Can TV complain about that? I doubt it. It's the party's party. Can TV make new out of the fact that the party refuses to have an interesting convention? I doubt it. I think a more interesting question raised by all this is whether, given that the convention is a blank as a way of arousing public interest in politics and revealing the significance of the issues in the election, there is anything the media can do to compensate for that. Could the networks run their own convention in which intelligent, objective, people--like us--would discuss the issues? Would anybody watch?

The fuzziness of the issues is pointed up by the selection of Jack Kemp. If Kemp is now Number 2, what would a Dole-Kemp administration do about government spending and the deficit. Are we going to have an administration of "bleeding-heart conservatives," as Kemp has described himself? And so on. I don't expect such questions to be answered in the convention. Will there be any way to get them answered after the convention?

I suppose you all had it in mind that five out of the 10 post-war presidents had previously been vice presidents.