It used to be that Americans viewed the broadcast of national political conventions as a sort of every-four-years tradition that could be boring but that also featured occasional moments of excitement, and sometimes inspiration.
In the evening, the TV might be tuned to one of the three major networks, but almost as background noise. Then, on the last day, the next president (or a current one seeking re-election) would appear to make an acceptance speech and reach for that inspiration, and, the TV folks hoped, ratings.
It was rather like someone who reckons he’s a baseball fan, but doesn’t care for it on television until the World Series.
But now, the networks no longer go “gavel to gavel,” and except for the snippets and the big speeches, many citizens, even those who are interested, just catch reports of gaffes or stumbles or embarrassments. That’s too bad, because conventions are indeed important and, if people pay attention, informative in terms of defining parties and candidates.
This week, as they gather in Tampa, Republicans will have a lot of conservative governors and members of Congress making speeches, but presumably they’ll try to broaden their most conservative base and reach undecided voters based on prescriptions for speeding economic recovery. Presidential nominee-to-be Mitt Romney already has sent some faint signals of reaching out for middle-of-the-road voters or stepping away from extreme positions such as the uncompromising anti-abortion stance in the party platform.
The GOP wants the week to be about the economy. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who’s to be the vice presidential nominee, is the House Budget Committee chair, and the architect of a Republican economic plan that would, among other things, continue to rely on trickle-down economics and give the wealthy more tax cuts.
That’s basically the same policy former President George W. Bush insisted would spark the economy. So Republicans somehow will have to prove to voters that such a policy really will work despite a failed history.
The convention and the post-convention period typically are when the rhetoric meets the hard questions.
For Romney, the convention is a chance to convince the true-believing conservatives, including tea partyers, that despite his more moderate past positions he has the bona fides to be their candidate. But he also must sway moderates and Democrats by presenting himself as a uniting force. Given the rightward shift of the GOP base, that’s no mean feat.
When the Democrats come to Charlotte Labor Day week, they’ll have similar challenges – broadening the liberal core, convincing people that the economic recovery may be slow but is sure, emphasizing their historic support of Medicare and Social Security as vital to the well-being of older Americans. They’ll be talking about the government’s role in economic stimulus as a good thing, about health care reform as essential to public health and economic stability, about a commitment to helping the disadvantaged as nothing of which to be ashamed.
Conventions as a showcase are, like that old gray mare, not what they used to be. But they offer at least a look at party philosophies that will surely guide a powerful agenda for four years. For citizens who stand to be affected by that agenda, they matter.