In Defense of Political Theater

The biggest gripe that people typically have about political conventions is that they are meaningless pep rallies, bereft of substance and without purpose.  To critics, conventions are a waste of time.

It is certainly true that conventions aren’t what they used to be.  In the era before state by state party primaries began, these mega-events were extremely important, because they were the mechanism by which the parties selected their nominee for president and vice-president.

Today, there is no longer any suspense.  Party nominees are almost always known far in advance, and that pageant of selecting them on the floor is nothing more than a formality.

This is something that I think the Ron Paul faction of the Republican Party fails to understand, as it waxes poetic about this rule or that rule which prevented the seating of some delegates.

With respect to all the voices who insisted for months that Romney wasn’t the nominee, that is exactly what he was.  Nominees in the modern Republican Party are selected by the voters long before conventions begin, and this year 10,023,280 people voted for Mitt Romney, winning 42 states and representing 52.12% of the primary voting electorate. The next closest candidate was Rick Santorum who had a mere 3,931,019 votes, carrying 11 states and 20.44% of the vote.

Merits of what was done at the Maine state convention, or the RNC aside, the nomination was his, and pretending otherwise is nonsense.  The purpose of a convention has changed.

But simply because the purpose of conventions has changed, doesn’t mean they are without purpose.  There is significant value to what they have become.

It is true that the event is now a great deal of laborious pomp and circumstance, and that many of the events and speeches are repetitious and unimaginative. They are a tad long, and there is certainly no shortage of unnecessary fluff to be had.

But they still represent an opportunity for the political parties to speak to the American people, express what their values are and make their case for why they deserve to be elected.

And every once and a while, you can be surprised by something truly unexpected.

For me, that was the Wednesday night address from former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

No one in the Republican Party speaks like Rice spoke during her address, and that is a real shame, because it was easily the most compelling and genuine speech I have heard delivered in a very long time. Her words were heartfelt and genuine, and completely devoid of talking points, soundbites or the typical rhetorical blathering you hear during most speeches like this.

More importantly, though, Rice spoke about things you never hear Republicans talk about. Things like the necessity of fighting poverty, the geopolitics of trade, and this country’s history of segregation and racism.

Too often, the right sees these issues as the de facto strength of the Democratic Party, and any discussion of them a loss. But not Rice. She spoke effusively of these issues, and argued for solutions to them on conservative terms. She spoke of things Republicans never mention, and used them to highlight a personal and political hope for the future.

Her most powerful moment of the night came as she closed, her voice quivering with emotion, “And on a personal note, a little girl grows up in Jim Crow Birmingham. The segregated city of the south where her parents cannot take her to a movie theater or to restaurants, but they have convinced that even if she cannot have a hamburger at Woolworths, she can be the president of the United States if she wanted to be, and she becomes the secretary of state.”

Even my Democratic friends gave the speech high marks. For any who have not seen it, I urge them to watch it and see it for yourself.

Party conventions may be glorified pep rallies, or long, drawn out commercials meant to enhance their chances of election. But they are still important, they still serve a necessary purpose, and sometimes, just sometimes, you can watch them and be truly surprised and uplifted by what you see.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.