I used to love conventions. As a kid, I watched every minute on TV — good and bad. In 1964, I woke my parents urgently to tell them to send a telegram supporting Bill Scranton immediately or else Barry Goldwater would win and we would have nuclear war (which was sort of like the most famous commercial that then-President Lyndon Johnson used against him). I also watched the horrors in 1968. I stayed up half the night to hear George McGovern’s speech in 1972 but was stuck in school in 1976.
In 1980, I ran something like 18 platform fights and traded the speaking time for four of them to get Ted Kennedy a speech at the Democratic National Convention. The fight between then-President Jimmy Carter and Kennedy, and between their delegates, at the convention was red-hot. Carter had been unwilling to concede anything, and there I was in the middle of it, crying on the convention floor.
In 1984, I ran the platform committee. There were no floor fights at all, but our chair, my boss and dear friend, was accepting the nomination for vice president. It was an amazing moment when she took the podium. Women wept on the floor, and across America.
In 1988, I ran the convention. There were no floor fights. Ann Richards, the keynote, was running for governor of Texas. She was spectacular, saying, “George Bush was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” I had this brilliant idea that we should combine all the 10-minute nominating speeches and have a 40-minute nominating speech by a gifted speaker who could make the case for Michael Dukakis. Mario Cuomo did just that for Bill Clinton four years later. Unfortunately, Clinton didn’t quite do it for Dukakis; the only big applause came when he said, “In conclusion.” Clinton’s genius as a politician showed through when he went on “The Arsenio Hall Show,” made fun of himself and played the saxophone. More people probably watched that.
After 1988, I went to almost every convention as a pundit, first for ABC and then, for many years, as the house liberal on Fox News.
I always had fun at conventions, except in 1992, when I was pregnant and kept getting called a “baby killer” from the minute I landed.
The point of all these stories is this: Nothing really happens at conventions. We hacks have a great time catching up. We pundits get to yack endlessly on TV, unravelling every detail as to how it might affect the campaign. We columnists have a surefire way to fill space.
But nothing has actually happened at a convention since 1980, when Carter refused to concede anything and had to follow Teddy around the podium to shake his hand.
Nothing like that has happened since. The platform is zealously controlled by the nominee. It’s a strategic document, not a plan. Rules and credentials fights — which were history-making in the days when all-white delegations put together in the backroom were challenged by civil rights leaders — don’t happen anymore.
And “nobody is watching.”
The ratings on Monday were down 28% from Monday night in 2016. Actually, I had expected the number to be even larger for the convention with no people, no votes, no signs, no excitement. Tuesday night was mostly canned speeches: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for one minute, Bill Clinton for five minutes, both prerecorded.
Ratings were only down 28% because of how few even watched it in 2016. Roughly 26 million people watched night one then, and 138 million people voted in the election. So does it matter so much if it was only 19.7 million on night one this year?
Of course, people may have watched later online, or seen clips that friends forwarded. But when I went surfing after Monday’s speeches, Maureen Dowd’s “typo” in The New York Times about this being the first time since 1984 that a man and a woman ran on the ticket was getting more attention than any convention speeches.
The most important thing about a convention is to not let it get out of control. Every poll done since 1968 shows that if a nominee can’t control his or her convention, voters think he or she can’t control the country. And since the early ‘80s, the Democrats and Republicans have had endless rules commissions whose goal was to ensure there would never be a deadlocked convention.
I have enormous confidence that Joe Biden and his team will restore America’s sense of community so we can make America great again. But television stars? I have yet to meet a big-time Hollywood producer (everyone has been bringing them in for years) who can figure out how to make endless speeches on various decorated stages exciting. And need I add that the public foots a big part of the convention bill?
It’s time to get rid of them.
To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.