A Tale of Two Conventions

Some points to take away from Denver and St. Paul


If convention success determined presidential elections, we should call 2008 for the Democrats right now. The contrast between the Democratic National Convention last week in Denver and the Republican National Convention this week in St. Paul was Gallant-and-Goofus sharp.

Downtown Denver was choked by foot and vehicle traffic and each night's official convention session was crammed with excited attendees and delegates. As noted here and elsewhere, Sen. Barack Obama's (D-Ill.) seemingly vain choice of Invesco Field as the venue for his acceptance speech proved to be too modest; the place was surrounded by Democrats, media types, and fans trying to get into the sold-out event.

In St. Paul, not a single event I attended was full. This ranged from networking meetings, policy discussions, and after-parties to the floor sessions themselves and Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) closing night performance. And while McCain's adequate speech drew a respectable audience, there were still plenty of empty seats in the Xcel Center. The crowds were not only sparse but subdued, unable to muster much excitement for anything except the choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as McCain's running mate. That excitement, at least, turned out to be justified, but even Hurricane Sarah wasn't enough to save a week soured (or saved) by Hurricane Gustav.

Does this difference matter anywhere outside the convention bubble? Possibly not. Palin's vice presidential acceptance speech drew almost as many TV viewers as Obama's presidential one, indicating that the dynamics of the race have yet to finish shifting.

Nevertheless, the conventions leave some interesting points to chew on in the next two months.

Red and Blue are still important:

If you don't believe there are two Americas, spend a week surrounded by people who think their salvation will come from voting for Barack Obama, then a week surrounded by people who believe the same about John McCain. The cultural differences on display in the two conventions were real and deep.

But the rules have changed. Who could have guessed that the first black man running as a major-party presidential candidate would be battling accusations that he's an elitist who's had life too easy? It's almost as weird as the second woman running for vice president getting flak for being insensitive about women's issues.

Now it's the Democrats who have the bigger tent:

Who dares to speak of 2004, when the Republicans seemed to hold all the crossover appeal among voters? The rock star treatment for Barack Obama in Denver was pretty stunning, and his fans included self-identified fiscal conservatives, libertarians, vegetarians, old, young, black, white, brown, and green. All those people may be deluding themselves, but the Democrats clearly have a brand with wide appeal. The Republicans need to get some of that appeal back. It's not clear even a fully-rallied GOP base is enough to win anymore.

The Republicans are now the disorganized party:

The Democrats stayed remarkably on-message, inside and outside the convention. New Green Jobs, McCain's houses, and the busted budget weren't just the talking points during the speeches. They were repeated by delegates and guests throughout the week. By comparison, the Republicans were all over the place in their rhetoric, with fanciful calls to repopulate the Midwest, mutually exclusive goals like simplifying the tax code while instituting new tax breaks for various environmental and personal behaviors, constant prattle about special needs kids, and so on.

Libertarians on the lam:

Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) was shut out from the Republican convention, while premium spots were given to lesser performers like former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whom Paul consistently beat in the primaries. All but Alaska among the delegations maneuvered to nix the handfuls of delegates Paul had picked up. That the Paulites did themselves no credit with their cockamamie, conspiratorial gatherings should not obscure the main point: The Republican Party has no interest in nurturing its libertarian wing. And the Democrats never even pretended to be interested. If there's a libertarian surge pending in the 2008 election, it will have to come from Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr.

The parties are getting even harder to tell apart:

With Democrats having assumed the mantle of hawkish, Bidenesque interventionists, and Republicans offering federal nostrums for education and Bill Frist's "health diplomacy," the Republicans and Democrats have more than justified the accusation that on actual policy they are as indistinguishable as Coke and Pepsi.

A competitive race is still good for the country:

Then again, without meaningless brand differentiation, we wouldn't have Pepsi One or Coca-Cola Zero. The best news of the Palin breakthrough is that it will make the remaining two months competitive and give the Republicans a chance to expose the weaknesses in the Obama-Biden ticket. What had looked like a fading challenge from the GOP has been at least partly invigorated. With the race once again a statistical tie, let's hope the two campaigns will get creative and possibly offer some actual substance in the debates. Or maybe we can just hope the Obama presidency will be a Carteresque four-year disaster that paves the way for a Reagan-style romp by Palin in 2012 (which may be the Republicans' actual strategy).

Let conventions be conventions:

You would never guess that the actual business of a convention was to have delegates vote for the party nominee, not to test the national patience with four days of boring speeches and Oscars-style production numbers. With the Hillary diehards safely locked in a padded room and the Paulites off in the St. Paul equivalent of a leper colony, and with both vice presidential picks announced prior to the opening gavel, 2008 once again elevated party discipline over any semblance of contention or any opposing viewpoints in the political process. Many delegates skipped out before the Wednesday roll calls even began, presumably to ensure they didn't miss any opportunities for drinking. And who could blame them, given what a formality conventions have become? The parties are private organizations entitled to run their shops as they choose, of course, but just once it would be nice to see a little old-fashioned head-banging in the process of crowning a nominee.