There are really three conventions each for Democrats and for Republicans. The first is the prime-time convention watched on home TVs. Unfortunately for George W. and for Al Gore, it's been shrinking for years. This time it's likely to attract fewer viewers than summer reruns of Washington Week in Review. NBC has decided to trim its entire coverage down to just two and a half hours for each party's convention. After all, who wants to watch the phony official beginnings of George W.'s and Al Gore's interminable presidential campaigns when you can watch a real dramatized president grapple with big issues on The West Wing?
The second convention involves the party faithful, occurring mostly on the convention floor. These are the fundamentalist Republicans and Democrats--the precinct captains, ward and county chairs, and local and state officials who are still doing grass-roots politics.
Most of the GOP's party faithful in Philadelphia will be small businessmen and women, Rotarians, born-again Christians, libertarians, right-to-lifers, and crew-cut 60-year-olds who liked Ike and yearned for Barry. They want taxes slashed, abortion banned, guns in every home, and the nation's defenses pumped way up. At the Democratic convention in Los Angeles, the party faithful will be school teachers, social workers, nurses, firefighters, members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union, and shaggy 60-year-olds who yearned for Adlai, Eugene, and George. Most want a higher minimum wage, a lot more money for schools, everyone in a union, and national health care.
They will have come to Philadelphia or to Los Angeles to ignite in themselves the passion that almost none now feels for the candidate their party will be nominating. They're also looking forward to seeing old friends, swapping war stories and gossip, making political deals, and partying. The party-faithful conventions are what's left of the life of the parties.
The third convention is for the fat cats--the people who have made huge soft money donations or rounded up 500 of their closest friends to give $1,000 each in hard money contributions, the political consultants who masterminded these fundraising campaigns, and the heads of major trade associations, giant corporations, and investment banks.
The fat-cat convention occurs in skyboxes with plexiglass windows through which participants can look down on the other two conventions, literally and figuratively. The fat-cat convention in Philadelphia will be almost identical to the fat-cat convention in Los Angeles two weeks later because most of those who attend the first will also attend the second. They've invested in both campaigns, diversifying their portfolios as any wise risk-managers would. The fat cats aren't particularly interested in politics but are passionately interested in getting or maintaining access to powerful people in Washington. Their future incomes and status depend on it.
The three conventions won't intersect. The prime-time folks sitting at home watching TV will have no idea who the party faithful on the floor are or what they believe, and they'll also be unaware of the fat-cat conventions in the skyboxes. For obvious reasons, both presidential campaigns would like to keep the prime-timers as ignorant as possible about the other two conventions.
The party faithful still believe that the conventions are centered on them, when in fact they have the least important function. They'll be only dimly aware of what's seen on television, and they don't think about the fat cats looming above them. And although the fat cats can see everything through their windows-- the staging and television cameras, the mob of faithful below them--they won't really care about either.
Ninety percent of the speeches made from the podium during the four days between opening and closing gavels won't occur in any of the three real conventions. During the 1996 Democratic convention, Evan Bayh made a 20-minute speech that not a single person witnessed. It wasn't broadcast in prime time. The party faithful on the convention floors were talking, partying, and working the halls. And the fat cats in the skyboxes were too busy eating lobster tails, sipping wine and martinis, exchanging business cards, talking on their cell phones, or dozing. If the eighteenth-century British philosopher Bishop George Berkeley was correct in surmising that a tree falling alone in the wilderness makes no sound, then it's fair to conclude that Bayh did not really make a speech at the 1996 Democratic convention.
At most, a few hundred thousand Americans in the prime-time convention will get a passing glimpse of George W.'s or Al Gore's face and hear a word or a phrase of a carefully scripted, poll-tested, focus-grouped acceptance speech. But the images and words will depart from their heads almost immediately because the conventions will have nothing to do with their everyday lives. The legacy of the 1990s is that American politics has been miniaturized: The pronouncements of politicians have been devalued, the party faithful have become almost irrelevant, and power is now firmly with the fat cats.
Bush and Gore are both counting on "bounces" after their prime-time coronations, but I doubt that either will have one. After four months of leaden campaigns, both candidates are already summer reruns. ¤