Political party conventions just aren’t what they used to be. There was a time when conventions actually elected the party’s nominees-oftentimes in hotly contested fights. Conventions were also the scenes of contentious platform debates, as competing factions would battle over the position the party would take on sensitive issues.
But no more.
Today’s political party conventions feature no meaningful voting, no debates or differences of opinions. But they are still intensely political events and they are important.
On one hand, the convention is a family affair, as the party faithful gather from across the country to bond together and become inspired for the fall election campaign. While the formal events of the convention have become rather scripted "pep rallies" designed to set themes and motivate the faithful, around the convention hundreds of diverse caucuses meet and host issues forums, receptions, and mini-rallies of their own.
The convention itself has become an orchestrated a media event. The problem, of course, is that as the convention has become more scripted and less impromptu-with all surprises eliminated-the media has reduced its coverage. This year, for example, the major networks only devoted three total hours of coverage for the four day event.
It is in this context that we must understand and evaluate the degree to which this year’s Democratic convention was a success.
Despite having decisively won the Democratic presidential primary, and despite the fact that most national polls now show him leading over President George W Bush, John Kerry had a number of important jobs to accomplish with this year’s Democratic National Convention. He had to take advantage of this week long media affair to define himself and put his personal stamp on the Democratic Party. He had to establish himself as the party’s undisputed leader and define themes that would motivate the party faithful and resonate with voters in November. At the same time, Kerry needed to use the convention to inoculate himself against expected Republican attacks on himself and the party as being too weak and too liberal to guide the country in this difficult time.
Polls now shows that Kerry is leading Bush by as much as five points. When asked which of the two candidates would do a better job on a series of issues, Kerry decisively bests the President on the economy, health care, education, the environment, etc. In fact it is only on national security related issues that Bush leads. In 2002 Democrats failed to recognize this and while they ran their campaign on the economy and social issues, Bush was able to turn the election into a referendum on national security. Kerry appeared determined not to allow this to occur in 2004.
Even a casual observer of the four day long convention could not help but notice Kerry’s central theme was that his administration would make America "stronger at home and more respected in the world." Signs with this theme were everywhere-in lights surrounding the convention hall and on almost every sign carried by delegates. But the convention planners didn’t stop with just signs. The theme was central to convention speeches as well. One newspaper recorded that a "stronger America" appeared in speeches over 180 times in just the first two days.
The convention featured former generals and admirals, all testifying to Kerry’s strength. The candidate’s biography focused on his military service and he was introduced by fellow veterans including one whose life he saved in battle over three decades ago. The point was a clear warning to Republicans that Democrats, too, have fought wars, stand for strong national defense, and have leaders to prove it. In one rather defining moment of his speech Kerry, like General Wesley Clark before him, pointed to an American flag and observed that the flag was not the exclusive property of either party. It belonged to all Americans.
The second major job Kerry had to accomplish might have been more difficult. After a week of stirring speeches by former Presidents (Carter and Clinton), former opponents (like Howard Dean, Al Sharpton, Wesley Clark, and Dennis Kucinich) and both seasoned Democrats and newcomers (like Senator Ted Kennedy and Senate candidate Barack Obama)-all of whom appeared to have strong support among the very liberal Democrats assembled at the convention-Kerry had to give a speech so strong and memorable that it would both define the convention and put his stamp on the event.
With polls showing that many of those now voting for Kerry say their principle motivation is opposition to George Bush, Kerry needed to change that dynamic. In short, one of the goals of the convention was to change the party into Kerry’s Democratic Party and give voters a better reason to vote for him than mere opposition to the incumbent.
From early returns it appears that Senator Kerry may have succeeded. The Democratic Party reports that on the last two nights of the convention, Kerry raised over $8 million on the internet. $5.7 million were raised during Kerry’s speech alone, coming from 800,000 individual donors.
What Kerry did was quite simple. He allowed the convention to solidify the traditional Democratic base by promising hope and help to those in need. He then shaped a response to face the Republican challenge by promising a new American foreign and military policy that would make the country "stronger and more respected." Kerry promised to be more respectful to allies, more honest with the American people, more attentive to the needs of the military, and more deliberative in the conduct of war.
Will the events of the past week help to overcome the Republican edge in foreign policy? We’ll know the answer in the weeks to come, especially after next month’s Republican convention which will, no doubt, provide a response to Senator Kerry and the Democrats. It is expected that given the timing of the Republican convention-just a few days before the anniversary of 9/11-that the events will focus largely on the threat of terrorism, the war in Iraq, and President Bush’s stewardship of the nation in this time of conflict. That, it appears, is the issue on which the Republicans seek to run their campaign this November and that is why Kerry’s convention focused preemptively on these questions.