John Kerry decided yesterday that he would accept his party's nomination at the regularly scheduled time -- on July 29, the last day of the Democratic convention in Boston. Had Kerry not publicly toyed with postponing his acceptance to maximize his fund raising, this would not have been an issue. But because he's made it one, it's a good time to reassess the role of nominating conventions and how they can be modernized.
When the Kerry campaign floated this trial balloon last Friday, Boston city officials were understandably miffed: To the Bostonians, the idea of hosting a convention without a nomination is akin to celebrating St. Patrick's Day without beer. But the broadcast media were no less thrilled about the prospect of a nomination-less convention. CBS' Bob Schieffer wondered, "Are these people nuts?" As Tom Brokaw told Larry King, "There's no good reason for NBC the network to be in Boston covering the convention; it will be just one large political rally and party."
This griping is only the latest episode in the networks' growing disenchantment with the conventions. In 1996, Ted Koppel famously pulled his team from the Republican convention, and each year the networks threaten to cover less and less of both parties' events.
Who can blame them?
Conventions once promised drama and intrigue, but that's a thing of the past. Today, the nominee is known months in advance. Floor fights are almost nonexistent. The events are choreographed with more precision than an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Modern conventions even feature biographical videos that essentially function as infomercials.
Most of all, party conventions have become entirely irrelevant to the actual nominating process. Let's not kid ourselves: Kerry has been the party's de facto nominee since Super Tuesday on March 2, and the nation has treated him that way. In fact, since the primary-centered nominating process took root in 1972 (and even before that), every nominee has been chosen weeks before the convention. And as the process becomes even more front-loaded, these outcomes are clear months before the convention. The gatherings are coronations, and with just as much suspense.
That's why it's time to end the party convention as we know it, and instead give each party 10 hours of prime-time television in the three months leading up to a presidential election. This ought to satisfy everyone: It would free the party conventions from the perversities of the campaign-finance system, free the networks from covering a non-news event (while treating it as news), and better reflect the reality of our political process.
The flap over Kerry's idea is rooted in a disconnect between the campaign-finance laws and the nomination process. If Kerry stayed within the public-financing system and the nominating contests were spaced out such that the nominee was not known until the last primaries (which take place in the first week of June), he would want to have a convention soon thereafter in order to have money with which to campaign.
Yet this year's primaries were even more front-loaded than ever before, and Kerry opted out of the public-financing system. So he had time and money, and no incentive, to rush toward the strictures of the Federal Election Commission, especially when George W. Bush will have five extra weeks to raise cash.
Kerry has decided to stick to the status quo, but there's no reason that we should when it comes to conventions.
First, let's keep the good parts: Conventions are the only time that national politics is elevated beyond one state or one issue to national attention, that future and current party leaders are given national exposure, and that the nation's citizens are presented with the choice they'll make on election day. In addition, party conventions rally the troops and kick off the campaign for the fall, energizing activists for the work that lies ahead.
Second, let's divorce the actual "nomination" from the summer gathering, as the two have no real connection anymore. The campaign-finance laws should no longer be tied to the official acceptance of a party's nod and instead designate one day as the start of the general-election season -- Labor Day, for instance -- with federal funds to be dispersed then. Parties could still hold conventions, but without the false drama of a nomination.
And that brings us to free airtime. Giving the parties a bloc of free airtime would end the charade that conventions are meaningful, deliberative meetings that produce the nominees, while also ensuring no significant loss of national television coverage for the political parties. Americans could still engage in the political debate, and not just those who happen to live in swing states.
If a party believed that its summer gathering warranted coverage, it could use some of its allotted time to highlight speeches of its nominee, a keynote, and other leaders. Leftover hours could then be used to televise additional speeches, town halls, telethons, or extended party broadcasts, further extending the national dialogue.
Of course, broadcasters would oppose these plans with a ferocity usually seen on cable (think: When Animals Attack). Over the years, they have reliably opposed every proposal for giving parties free airtime, most recently in 1998. In his State of the Union address that year, President Bill Clinton called on the Federal Communications Commission to develop a free airtime plan, but the FCC never moved on the issue because it was threatened by broadcaster-friendly legislators with a cut in appropriations if it proceeded. Later in the year, the White House appointed a panel to develop a free-airtime proposal. All seven industry representatives on the panel opposed the idea, and the recommendations of the group were just that -- and were ignored.
But one reason the networks are loath to cover the conventions and so upset at Kerry's proposal is that it's become an incredibly expensive (and pointless) proposition. With the prospect of being freed from doing so, they may be more apt to make the deal for free airtime.
Whatever happens down the road, this year the Republicans surely will continue to use Kerry's dalliance with a non-nominating nominating convention as further evidence of his inability to take a firm stance. But let's give Kerry credit for one thing: He drew attention to a system that needs fixing. Hopefully he's provided a spark for remaking the system. That way, when he's nominated for re-election, it will be in a system very different than today's.
Kenneth S. Baer, a former senior speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, runs Baer Communications, a Democratic consulting firm.