Posted on July 13, 1992 in Washington Watch
When I walked to the podium of the Democratic Convention in San Francisco to nominate Jesse Jackson for President in 1984, I became the first Arab American to address a national political convention. In 1988, I was once again given that special opportunity when I walked to the podium of the convention in Atlanta to lead the historic debate on Palestinian rights.
What I most remember about each of these occasions was the excitement of making history and seeing democracy work.
While polls today show that most Americans are alienated from the two major political parties and from politics in general, the great institution of the political convention lives on. It is a great theater in which dramatic moments in American political history have been played out.
In 1964 the Civil Rights struggle came to center stage when all white delegations from some southern states refused to accept a compromise allowing African American delegates to be seated in the convention.
In 1968, a scene of the great movement against the war in Viet Nam was played out within the context of the convention. Street battles raged just outside the convention hall in Chicago as police beat demonstrators who chanted “The whole world is watching,” while more violence erupted inside the hall itself when anti-war delegates selected a young civil rights activist and placed his name in nomination for the presidency on their behalf.
In 1984 and 1988 the Democratic conventions were electrified by Jesse Jackson’s oratory and his profound challenge to the leadership of the party. Part of that challenge, of course, was the debate on Middle East policy which he and his delegates championed.
And so it has been that every four years Democrats and Republicans meet at their quadrennial conventions to nominate their presidential and vice presidential candidates, to conduct the business of their respective parties and to debate the great social issues of the day.
Today’s conventions, however, are tame by comparison with those of earlier times. Years ago convention delegates were primarily local party leaders and big contributors. The parties were rife with factionalism and competing interest groups based on region and economic interests. Intra-party fights were intense. In 1924, for example, Democratic delegates had to vote 103 times before agreeing to nominate John Davis as their candidate.
The delegate selection process of today is far different. Three-fourths of the delegates who will attend this week’s Democratic convention have been elected in the state-by-state primary process that began in February. In general, delegates in each state are awarded to the various competing candidates in proportion to the percentage of votes they receive in that state’s primary.
To win the nomination for president, and candidate must receive on more than one-half of the total number of delegates at the convention. Bill Clinton has done this and is therefore assured of the nomination.
Further, because more than one half of the delegates are committed to Clinton, his chosen running mate—Tennessee Senator Al Gore—is also certain to be accepted by the convention as the vice presidential nominee.
On Monday the convention will hear reports from the Credentials and Rules Committees. It will then debate and vote on these reports after considering any objections raised by large blocs of delegates as submitted in minority reports. On Tuesday the convention will debate and vote on the party’s platform, again only after considering minority reports.
In recent years, the consideration of these minority reports has generated most of the exciting moments. The major civil rights challenges to the party came during the Credentials Committee debates. Credentials of all-white delegations were denied because it was ruled that racist states denied voting rights and political opportunities to African Americans.
After the 1968 debacle at the Chicago convention, party reformers were determined to break the control of the local party leaders and major contributors once and for all time. They finally won their case after the 1972 convention when the “McGovern reforms” were accepted by the Rules Committee.
Due to the McGovern reforms, which were augmented by the Jackson reforms passed by the Rules Committee in 1984 and 1988, the overwhelming majority of the delegates are now elected in a fair and open manner which allows grass-roots activists to total access to the conventions.
As a result of these reforms, more than half of the 4,000 delegates coming to New York this week will be women, 30% will be African Americans, Hispanic and Asian, and people from every conceivable walk of life will be present. Forty of this year’s delegates will be Arab Americans.
The Platform Committee debates of 1968 tore the party apart over frustration with the war in Viet Nam. But for Arab Americans and Jewish Americans, what was almost equally as dramatic was the sight of 1,500 delegates (one-third of the convention) conducting a floor demonstration on behalf of a balanced Middle East policy in 1988.
This year there will be at least two such challenges to the party leadership. During the Rules debate, the Brown campaign will present a minority report seeking to open the party structure even further to grass-roots activists. The Tsongas campaign will present a challenge to the platform Committee report, the principal focus of which will be Tsongas’ pro-business economic policy.
Since neither Tsongas nor Brown would endorse a challenge to Clinton’s very pro-Israel Middle East platform, Arab Americans were unable to secure sufficient number of votes to formally debate that issue this year. (It is necessary to win 20% of the voting members of a committee in order to debate the majority position.)
Arab Americans have nevertheless created a full program of events for the convention, including a meeting of Arab American leaders; a Gala Reception on the convention’s opening night featuring Casey Kasem, Jesse Jackson, Jerry Brown and Members of Congress Mary Rose Oakar and Nick Rahall; and a floor demonstration and educational campaign during the platform debate.
While Clinton’s nomination of Senator Al Gore is certain to win approval from the majority of delegates on Thursday night, it is not a popular choice with many key groups in the party. Both Jesse Jackson and Jerry Brown have expressed serious reservations over the nomination.
Gore and Clinton are in many ways cut from the same mold. The standard practice of past campaigns has been to select a running mate who brings another perspective and, therefore, more supporters to the campaign. Northeast liberal Kennedy picked Southern moderate Johnson in 1960, and conservative Westerner Reagan picked moderate southern George Bush in 1980, while George Bush picked conservative mid-Westerner Dan Quayle in 1988, and so on.
The only real explanation for Clinton’s choice of Gore is that Clinton feels so vulnerable that he needed a running mate who reinforced the role he had projected for himself. Clinton had projected an image of himself as someone strong on national defense (until it was revealed that he had “dodged the draft” during the Viet Nam war and had “waffled” on his position just prior and at the beginning of the Gulf War), a strong supporter of the environment (until it became clear that Arkansas has one of the worst environmental records of any state in the U.S.), and conservative on social issues (until it was strongly alleged that he had had a twelve year extra-marital affair). Gore’s credentials in all three areas at this point seem to be solid. So, Gore doesn’t add to the ticket, he just covers its weaknesses.
The problem, of course, is that African Americans and liberals who are deeply concerned about urban blight and social programs now find the Democratic ticket to be unbalanced and, at this point, they seem uncertain about supporting it. This may change by week’s end, or it could produce a challenge during the convention with liberals putting forward their own vice presidential nomination.
At this moment two points seem clear for Bill Clinton and the Democrats: First, after weeks of almost completely positive press coverage and free media exposure on television talk shows, Clinton’s standing has improved only slightly. He is still lagging in the polls. While one aberrant poll put him in first place two weeks ago, all of the major network polls still show him finishing third in a close three-way race behind Bush and Ross Perot. Second, Democrats face some serious intra-party fence mending chores if they are to put together a winning coalition in November.
All of this will become more clear during the week of the Democratic Convention. Will unity be established and will the national exposure of the party’s big show give Clinton the boost to match the 17 point lead in the polls that Dukakis enjoyed after the 1988 convention? Or will internecine fighting and division within the party and cast a cloud over New York and send Democrats home with a wounded and limping standard bearer?
Because questions of this magnitude are still and only resolved at national conventions, national conventions retain their role as the preeminent fixed events in American political life.
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