By Bill Boyarsky
Editor’s note: Listen to Bill Boyarsky discuss these and other issues in this week’s Truthdig podcast.
Waiting until the national convention to decide their presidential nomination at the national convention won’t hurt the Democrats. It could, in fact, help them win in November.
I know this is counter to what leading Democrats and many pundits are saying. As one prominent advocate of a dull and predictable kind of convention, Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean, told the NY1 cable channel, “We’re going to have to get the candidates together and make some kind of an arrangement, because I don’t think we can afford to have a brokered convention, that would not be good news for either party.”
Actually, it would be great news for his party. I base this nonconformist view on personal experience, having covered most of the national conventions since 1964. Those years include the last time a great battle took place inside and around the arena, when Ronald Reagan almost took the 1976 Republican nomination away from President Gerald Ford.
Most people are saying the increasingly heated fight between Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama will leave the party splintered and hopelessly weakened if it spills over on the convention floor in front of the world’s television cameras. The losers would sulk home, emerging only to denounce the nominee. Independents, who might be leaning toward the Democrats, would join the crusade of Republican John McCain.
That’s old thinking. This presidential campaign is something new. Interest is high, driven by the historic candidacies of a woman and an African-American and by the drama of the up-from-the-grave campaign of McCain, the Vietnam POW survivor.
Young Americans are following the campaign as never before. Figures compiled by MTV showed a record youth vote on Super Tuesday in more than 20 states. “In practically every state holding a primary or caucus Tuesday, youth turnout increased astronomically, doubling, tripling and even quadrupling the turnout in the 2000 and 2004 electoral seasons,” MTV’s Web site reported.
Audiences for election coverage on all-news cable channels CNN, Fox and MSNBC are way up, and much of the gain comes from young viewers, David Carr wrote in The New York Times.
Do you think these new political fans, especially the young, would be turned off by a showdown on television? No. They would be fascinated, as they should be, and would follow the story until its ending in November and hopefully into Act 2, after the inauguration.
The old-fashioned scenario is based on what happened to the Democrats during the Vietnam War, which tore apart the party and the nation.
We all know—or should know—about the peaceful pre-Vietnam War days when party bosses ran things from hotel rooms full of smoke and liquor. A classic example was 1952, when Adlai Stevenson, the governor of Illinois, was nominated with the greatest of the party bosses, Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago, calling the shots for him.
But the boss system collapsed at the infamous Chicago convention of 1968 under the stress of the Vietnam War and the assassination of the man who had emerged from the primaries as the probable nominee, Robert F. Kennedy. Daley, unable to persuade Ted Kennedy to run, put his might behind Hubert Humphrey, who had not entered a single primary. Humphrey won the nomination, and Daley’s cops beat and arrested many of the protesters. The experience of Chicago prompted a series of party rules changes, resulting in the current system of states choosing delegates through primary elections or caucuses.
What party Chairman Dean and the other convention peaceniks fear is another Democratic fight, with Clinton and Obama arriving at the convention tied in the delegate count and each short of the 2,025 votes needed for nomination.
That might leave the final decision to 796 “superdelegates,” party leaders and elected officials who get their delegate badges because of their status.
Superdelegates are free to vote their choice. As of now news media tallies have more than 250 supporting Clinton, 160-plus for Obama and 350-plus uncommitted. But comments to reporters don’t constitute a binding pledge.
Obama, not liking this scenario, is talking as though his nomination is inevitable. “What’s pretty apparent now is that we’re building a big pledged delegate lead that I think it will be hard for Sen. Clinton to catch up on,” he said on the “Today” show. “But after [the] March 4th [primaries], I think the party is going to have to take a look and see if it’s time for us to go ahead and move forward with the nomination.”
But why? This year is not 1968. No issue as divisive as Vietnam is tearing apart the Democrats. The overwhelming majority of them want to pull out of Iraq. So do Clinton and Obama, although they disagree over timing. Health insurance and the failing economy are the leading domestic issues, and Clinton and Obama differ only in details. Their differences are nothing compared to the division of 1968.
One of their former competitors, Gov. Bill Richardson, talked about the possibility of a convention fight in an interview on CNN. He appeared relaxed in a New Mexico-looking desert-shade shirt with a bolo tie, his face partially covered by a beard that seems to fit his Latino and Southwestern heritage.
“I don’t believe that having so much interest in a convention, a contested convention, is such a bad thing if it’s done in an orderly process, if there’s a mediator, maybe somebody like Al Gore, and it’s very close,” he said. “Just think—all those people that have been comatose watching the Democratic conventions would suddenly listen. It’d be enormously interesting to the country. “
When he was campaigning, Richardson called for getting out of Iraq immediately, and I agreed with him. I also thought Richardson, the hardheaded practical governor, made the most sense of any of the candidates on domestic issues.
And I agree with him on this. Let’s have a real convention, one that’s worthy of an extraordinary year.
AP photo / Charles Rex Arbogast
Dueling Dems: Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton campaign on CNN’s screens during the last pre-Super Tuesday debate in Los Angeles on Jan. 31.