It is a dream that emerges every presidential cycle, as a gaggle of candidates begin the trek. It grows as polls show no clear leader and the primaries split between the contenders. It has taken on unexpected strength this year because of the realization that neither Sen. Hillary Clinton nor Sen. Barack Obama has any plausible chance of capturing the nomination based on elected delegates by the time the primaries end. And if Clinton wins impressively in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, the dream will sprout new wings.
"Yes!"proclaim the under-60 journalists, sick of their elders' late-night reminiscences of the challenge to George McGovern's California delegation in 1972, or Ronald Reagan's fruitless campaign for Rule 16(c) in 1976."Yes! We will live to see it—the brokered convention!"
The scenarios are blossoming: Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen conjures a pre-convention convention of undecided superdelegates; Time magazine's Joe Klein imagines the uncommitted supers abstaining, thus depriving either contender of a nomination and leading to a Gore-Obama ticket. Former West Wing producer and senatorial aide Lawrence O'Donnell Jr. offers a movie treatment in New York magazine that portrays a tough-as-nails Obama besting Clinton by putting Gen. Wes Clark on his ticket.
There's a subtle but important wrinkle in all of this: We may actually have a plausible shot at a contested convention this summer, but there's almost no chance at all of a brokered convention—mostly because there are no brokers, and there haven't been any for quite a while.
The famous prototype of the old-fashioned brokered convention came out of the Republican race in 1920. There was even a smoke-filled room: suites 408 through 410 of the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago, where a group of political leaders, mostly sitting senators, resolved a nominating impasse and chose silver-haired Ohio Sen. Warren Harding—as predicted by the group's key figure, fellow Ohio politician Harry Daugherty.
Months before the convention—on Feb. 21, 1920, to be precise—Daugherty told the New York Times, "About 11 minutes after two on Friday morning at the convention, when 15 or 20 men, somewhat weary, are sitting around a table, one of them will say, 'Who will we nominate?; At that decisive time the friends of Harding can suggest him, and can afford to abide by the result." After rejecting three other candidates and Massachusetts Gov. Calvin Coolidge, who was considered too progressive, the delegates followed Daugherty and gave Harding the nod on the 10th ballot. Coolidge had to make do with the vice-presidential spot.
None of this worked out as hoped. Harding died—of a heart attack, murder, or suicide—in August of 1923, and Coolidge ascended to the office the brokers of 1920 had denied him. Daugherty, who'd become Harding's attorney general, resigned amid the Teapot Dome oil-lease scandals. And the smoke-filled room became the symbol of backroom political chicanery.
Thirty-two years later, it was the Democrats who needed the services of political brokers. President Harry Truman began 1952 with approval ratings of the George W. Bush variety. Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver, whose televised hearings into organized crime made him the first TV-spawned candidate, challenged Truman in the New Hampshire primary and beat him. Truman decided not to run for re-election. Kefauver went on to dominate the primaries. But in those days, most of the delegates were handpicked by governors and mayors, and most of them, especially big-city mayors, had profound antipathy toward Kefauver, whose hearings had exposed links between organized crime and Democratic city machines.