Why few people watch political convention coverage

Posted: Jul 29, 2004 12:00 AM

 With the biggest broadcasting networks ignoring Democratic convention proceedings except for an hour of coverage on some nights, political pundits mutter that the front-loaded primary system and the quick victories it produces have stolen viewer interest. But I can think of another reason why ratings are so low.

 It used to be that large numbers of people had to watch to decide who should receive their votes. The two major parties weren't so far apart ideologically and culturally. Voters worried about the management ability of one set of leaders could readily turn to another.

 Now, such shifts are rare. A liberal who thought the Clinton administration had gored the nation was not about to hand the store to conservatives, even if they looked like better managers. Most conservatives today have a parallel shuddering at the thought of turning government over to liberals.

 For most voters, therefore, convention speechifying is not "news you can use." The red meat speeches of Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy probably played well with many blue state voters, but so what? Orators talked of balancing budgets, but they all want to do so by raising taxes. "The era of big government is over," President Clinton proclaimed in his 1996 State of the Union address, but we didn't hear that this week.

 We are hearing a lot of religious left talk -- Ted Kennedy quoted a prayer -- combined with proposals that would in practice undermine family and church. Liberals see these institutions as inhibiting the drive to a free, uninhibited, perfect humanity. They want government to promote sacraments of the left such as abortion.

 Does that surprise anyone? No, and so the only folks tuning in were likely to be political junkies looking for entertainment. Would Teresa Heinz be able to speak five languages in one paragraph? (Yes, flawlessly.) How would 42-year-Senator Kennedy do in the Old-timers game? (Alas, he stumbled over the word "suburb.") Would Barack Obama, the presumptive next senator from Illinois, live up to his Rookie of the Year touting? (He did.) Big deal: This reality show was less useful than others that at least offer survival tips.

 Forty years ago, Barry Goldwater talked about "a choice, not an echo." That's what we have in party ideology now, but that blessing is also a curse: Liberals who don't want to help elect a conservative have no choice but to vote for John Kerry. Conservatives who don't want to help elect a liberal will flock to George Bush. Game, set, match, so the election this fall will be decided by which side is better at getting out its vote, not which is better at convincing those few in the middle.

 Democrats could have attracted more attention this year if they had encouraged ideological diversity. Even though 20 Democratic senators and representatives had at least a 90 percent pro-life rating from the National Right to Life Committee, convention planners allowed no pro-life voices. A strongly pro-life speech, and the boos it would have received, would have made for great theater. Dems who lacked courage should not be complaining about the small attention their convention is receiving. 

 Maybe this will all change. Party positions are not fixed in stone. Over time in American history, they have always changed: Keeping either Democrats or Republicans moving in lockstep for very long is like stuffing a live octopus into a string bag and expecting that none of the arms will hang out. But parties tend to go through major changes only after they have suffered big defeats, as the GOP did in 1964 and the Dems did in 1972.

 If we have another cliffhanger this year, hope will string eternal. The pros in the losing party will comfort themselves by saying that if only one little thing had broken in their favor, victory would have been at hand. And they will probably be right. Fasten your seatbelts.