Having now sat through both the Republican and Democratic conventions, I have come to two conclusions.
First, the order of the conventions should be changed. Historically, it has been considered an advantage for a political party to hold its presidential convention first. Up until recent years, parties usually did not know who their candidate would be until the convention, and they needed extra time for him to organize a campaign and introduce himself to the American people. For this reason, the party not holding the White House always holds its convention first in order to give it a leg up.
However, in this day and age, I believe that going first has become more of a handicap than an advantage. To begin with, we no longer really use conventions to choose candidates. They are already chosen by the primaries long before convention season begins in July. Consequently, the main role of conventions now is to promote their candidate and get in a few licks on his opponent. Hence, conventions are now little more than heavily scripted infomercials.
Furthermore, under the campaign finance laws, certain restrictions on fund raising and expenditures take effect the moment a candidate is officially chosen. For this reason, John Kerry briefly flirted with the idea of not formally accepting the Democratic nomination at his convention, in order to delay the effective date of these restrictions. He ended up not doing so only because of warnings from the television networks that they would not cover the Democratic convention unless it culminated in a genuine nomination.
This being the case, I think it is now an advantage to go last. Not only does the in-party candidate avoid restrictions for several weeks that apply to his opponent, but he gets the opportunity to make his case to the American people closer to Election Day. Thus, if he has a successful convention, as George W. Bush did, the glow may better translate into votes.
If the principle of giving the out-party a bit of an advantage in the timing of conventions still holds, we should seriously consider reversing their order -- requiring the in-party to go first and allow the out-party to get last licks. Also, the campaign finance laws should be amended so that any restrictions do not begin until both candidates have been formally nominated.
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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