At Conventions, It's Television, Not the Platform, That Counts

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Every four years, involving one party or the other, it seems that we get a batch of stories just like today’s Washington Post write-up on a possible platform fight between John McCain and the G.O.P.’s right wing.

It’s almost always much ado about nothing. Tension between the nominee of either party – who is interested in projecting a moderate, inclusive image to the general-election audience – and that nominee’s red-meat-hungry party base are inevitable. But party platforms themselves do not influence mass opinion – the pictures and sounds that come out of the convention do.

For example, the G.O.P. drafted a very conservative platform in 2000 (though not as conservative as those of 1996 and 1992), but the message that the masses got out of the Philadelphia convention – which featured prominently Colin Powell in prime time and just about every black and Hispanic member of the party, not to mention an inclusive-sounding George W. Bush – was one of moderation and diversity. Democrats screamed – “The Republicans have succeeded in projecting an image that is not only at total variance with their record but in contradiction of their own platform,” then-Senator Robert Torricelli harrumphed – but the public wasn’t very interested in the language of the platform, and the pictures and sounds won out.

Invariably, candidates recognize this reality and end up using the platform-writing process mainly to appease their bases. Sometimes, they’ll make a few symbolic stands – Bush fought the G.O.P. base on education and immigration in 2000— to prove their independence, but the platform is largely a document for the true believers. And when the base slips in planks that undercut the nominee’s position, the nominee simply distances himself and the public generally understands.

Governor Bush is going to run on his record and his views, and it’s on that ground that he’ll make his stand,” is how Bush’s spokesman responded to such inconsistencies in ’00. Bob Dole in ’96 was even blunter: “I’m not bound by the platform. I probably agree with most everything in it. But I haven’t read it.”

The real question is what kind of memorable pictures McCain’s campaign will be able to produce at this summer’s convention. At the past few conventions, the G.O.P. has been masterful at showcasing its most moderate and personally popular faces, like Colin Powell in 2000 and Rudy Giuliani and Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2004. But this year seems trickier. Powell seems inclined to support Obama. Giuliani’s star has faded after his ugly presidential bid. Schwarzenegger, however, seems likely to play a leading role. But who else? Joe Lieberman is a likely prime-time speaker, but otherwise the G.O.P. seems lacking for star power this time around, another casualty of the party’s terrible standing among voters.

If McCain is hurt by his convention this year, it won’t be because of a platform fight but rather because the G.O.P. has lost its ability to put on a good TV show.

At Conventions, It's Television, Not the Platform, That Counts