Ballot Box

The Difference Between the Two Conventions

LOS ANGELES–Political conventions are largely exercises in reciprocal theft. Democrats attempted to replicate the impeccably choreographed 1980 Republican convention in Detroit for many years. They finally got it right in 1992 in New York. Republicans tried to copy the Democrats’ glitzy compassion-fest of 1992 and finally got it right in 2000 in Philadelphia.

In Los Angeles, Democrats are busy plagiarizing, with slight modification, much of what worked for the Republicans two weeks ago. Republicans had a blind mountain climber. Tonight, Democrats had a legless long-distance runner (I’m waiting for a mute politician). Republicans had “ordinary people” speaking from the podium; Democrats have officials performing live “interviews” with ordinary people, which is not an improvement.

Republicans opted to make Tuesday their dullest night. Democrats did the same with their “liberal night”–though Jesse Jackson leading the crowd in a slightly obscene chant of “Stay out the Bushes” may be the wackiest moment at either convention thus far.

Yet there are still differences between a Republican convention and a Democratic convention, differences that speak to the persistent temperamental disparity between the two parties.

For one thing, Republican conventions are perfectly ordered, with a crisp, businesslike feel. Every speech is vetted and released to the press ahead of the event. All the placards in the hall are officially designated. Spontaneity does not break out. Speakers stand alone on a vast, bald stage.

A Democratic convention, by contrast, is incorrigibly chaotic. Delegates shout out comments and wave homemade placards. Moments of spontaneity occur despite the attempt to keep to a script. The podium is busy, with lots of people milling around and schmoozing.

At a Republican convention, the schedule is enforced with military rigidity. Speakers remain within their allotted time slots. At a few points in Philadelphia, the floor managers needed to add extra musical interludes to the program because the trains were running ahead of schedule.

A Democratic convention, on the other hand, runs on “Clinton time.” It’s assumed that speakers can’t be reined in–and no one would dare tell Jesse Jackson or Ted Kennedy to keep it short and sweet. As a result, President Clinton began speaking last night five minutes before he was supposed to finish, at the end of the prime-time broadcast slot. The session ran over by 35 minutes, losing a significant share of the national viewing audience. Tonight, the proceedings ended a mere 15 minutes late.

Republicans have some control over their own activists, extremists, and special-interest groups who understand the need to suppress conflict in public. When the party wants its fringe invisible, as the GOP did in Philadelphia, the fringe disappears.

Democrats don’t control their fringe. Hiding them would be impossible, so they don’t try.

Republicans, who shy away from conflict and dissent, are happy to see protestors outside the hall penned in, if not clubbed and held without bond.

Democrats, who are made uncomfortable by the lack of conflict and dissent, sympathize with the protestors outside. Many of the Democratic delegates seem a short step away from being protestors themselves.

In the end, a Republican convention is always a television show filmed in a big auditorium.

In the end, a Democratic convention is a real event that is carried live on television.

Republican conventions are not, truth to tell, much fun. They tend to be in second-tier cities, such as Philadelphia, San Diego, and Houston. Congressional aides in suspenders dominate the late-night parties.

Democrats have more fun. Their conventions tend to be in the biggest cities, which are part of the party’s base of support. The last three have been Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, which are fun places to be for a week. Media bigwigs and celebrities turn up.

Republicans get slightly oddball entertainers who happen to be Republicans.

The Democrats have all of Hollywood on call. But for some reason, their music is just as lousy.

Republicans can’t dance.

Democrats, thankfully, don’t try.