Crowded Out: American Political Conventions: Part Two

By Davies, Philip John | Contemporary Review, February 2000 | Go to article overview

Crowded Out: American Political Conventions: Part Two


Davies, Philip John, Contemporary Review


IN 1996 discipline was evident from both parties at their respective conventions. Security was tight, convention sites were guarded, and surrounded by clear space. In spite of Senator Dole's unbeatable margin established early in the primary process the delegates were not unanimous in their commitment to Dole's appeal for a more tolerant Republican party. It was clear that some conservative delegates had chosen to compromise in supporting Dole, as the man most likely to defeat Clinton, but not to compromise their policy views. The Dole camp did not manage to control the platform committee, where Buchananites and their conservative allies had their major victories and again caused real difficulty for the party's managers.

Dole had announced that the Republican platform commitment to the life of the unborn child must be accompanied by a 'declaration of tolerance' recognising that many Republicans held different views. Dole was forced into retreat. The 1996 Republican platform read: 'The unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed. We support a human life amendment to the Constitution. We oppose using public revenues for abortion and will not fund organizations which advocate it. We support the appointment of judges who respect traditional family values and the sanctity of innocent human life.' Faced with this platform, the party management tried to ignore it. But they had anticipated potential difficulties, and had acted in advance to curtail the platform discussion period. When pressed about the content, both Bob Dole and Republican Party Chairman Haley Barbour made it clear that they had not read the document, and were not in any way bound by it, confirming the old gag line that the part y platform is like a railway platform, once you're on the train, you leave it behind.

Regardless of powerful party and candidate management, the divisions were not kept off the convention floor. Dole's choice of self-styled 'bleeding heart conservative' Jack Kemp as his vice-presidential running mate may have brought authority to the candidate's conversion to conservative-wing tax reduction and reform ideas, but did not mollify the social and lifestyle conservatives.

On 12th February 1996, at the opening caucus of the season, in Iowa, Bob Dole had taken 26.3 per cent of the straw pole, taking first place, as predicted, but with 11 per cent less of the vote than he had achieved in winning the 1988 Iowa caucus, and with Pat Buchanan in hot pursuit. Some newspapers, in February 1996, reported this result as 8 convention delegates for Dole, 6 for Buchanan, and the other 11 of the Iowa delegation divided between 4 other candidates. They were wrong, but that's what they reported. The caucus format is open to what the Labour Party used to call 'entryism'. Participation rates, even in pumped-up Iowa, are lower than in primary elections, and organised minorities can operate successfully in this environment. In Waterloo, Iowa, the local high school hosted the caucuses for a number of precincts. Citizens arrived in their cars, and groups gradually gathered in their various rooms. Then, a few minutes before the meetings started, school buses full of people arrived from Baptist churc hes, and disgorged congregations united in their support of Pat Buchanan.

For all the media attention, these caucuses choose absolutely no delegates to the national convention. But they kick-start a process that goes on through County Conventions, six weeks later, and thereafter District Caucuses, and subsequently a State Convention in mid-June. By that time the national party nominee is clear, and Iowa generally joins the bandwagon, as it did in 1996, with 25 delegates for Dole. But the impact of the Iowa Buchanan crowd was still evident. The school blackboards in Waterloo, in February, were covered with Buchanan policy proposals, and both the policies and their supporters passed through the system, and underpinned the Iowa delegation in Chicago. …

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