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Searching for meaning in a sea of funny hats

It’s Wednesday night, an hour and 20 minutes before prime time starts. During a break between speeches, “Footloose” blares over the PA system. I’m watching delegates dance, wave signs and swirl yellow and orange flags above their heads  — heads covered with an array of attention-grabbing hats.

Perhaps this is not the best moment to ponder what we learn of significance from party conventions.  

Earlier this evening, as the delegates were pouring in, I was down on the convention floor to provide some television commentary. I lingered to observe delegates and television commentators mill about.  

My brief time on the floor did not disappoint. I observed Trent Lott and Donna Brazile chatting like long lost friends. I saw the requisite big, funny hats up close. A plush elephant head rested atop one man’s head, and a nearby woman’s hat sparkled with red and blue sequins. The Texas delegates arrived in large cowboy hats, and the Michigan delegates were sporting matching hockey jerseys. (To honor their state’s hockey prowess?  Or the “hockey mom” who would speak later?)

A California delegate complained about his state’s seating far from the podium, although he recognized that California’s “blue” status was responsible for his poor view. (In addition to those for the Arizona and Minnesota delegates, the best seats went to Ohio and Michigan delegates in recognition of their states’ pivotal role in the Electoral College).  

Scripted event
Even with the reshuffling of the program caused by Hurricane Gustav, this — like all modern conventions — is a very tightly scripted event, both in terms of the speeches and the audience reactions. I saw someone hand a strategically placed delegate a “homemade” McCain sign to wave. I peeked at the instructions for sign waving that were left on the delegates’ chairs. They instructed delegates when to hold up the “PROSPERITY” sign and when to hold up the “COUNTRY FIRST” sign.

Wednesday night’s speeches, like Tuesday’s nights, emphasized convention themes. Maryland’s former Lt. Gov. Michael Steele implored the audience several times: “Do you want to put your country first?” In response, delegates’ “COUNTRY FIRST” signs were aflutter. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee focused on one of the night’s themes, “prosperity,” in his speech.  Former Gov. Mitt Romney read a litany of complaints about the policies of “liberal Washington” and provided GOP economic prescriptions.  

The speeches also provided a template for the campaign’s strategy of attack on the Democratic candidates and media alike. During prime time, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani criticized Barack Obama as the “least experienced candidate for president in the last 100 years.” Huckabee opened by criticizing the media’s treatment of Sarah Palin, calling it “tackier than a costume change at a Madonna concert.” Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle joined the attack on Palin’s critics.
 
It goes without saying that the most anticipated and analyzed speech of the night was Palin’s. Her first major introduction to the country emphasized her credentials as a reformer and outsider, and we learned more about her and her family background. But most of all, we learned that she will run a campaign attacking the “Washington elite” and her Democratic opponents. 

The audience inside the convention center loved Palin. The biggest applause lines of the night — and most-quoted sound bites — came after her pithy and clever attacks on Obama. The assessment of the more important audience across living rooms in America remains an open question.

But at the end of the night, what did we learn about Palin and her capacity to lead or her vision for the country? I came away with a good idea of the arguments she will emphasize over the course of the next two months, but not many specific policy ideas or her vision for governing.

To be clear, the same criticism applies to most convention speeches. They are typically highly scripted and lack context and detail, and they overflow with attacks that make great sound bites but overlook the complexity of governing and the nuances of opponents’ records. We will learn much more about Palin from her unscripted moments during campaign appearances, press interviews, and the vice presidential debate.

What can be learned?
This brings me back to the question raised by the delegates’ hats: What do we learn from party conventions?

It’s not a rhetorical question for me. I need to tell my students something meaningful about conventions in my political science course, “U.S. Campaigns and Elections.” The campaigns and elections text that I assign (like most) devotes only a few pages to nominating conventions. The last time I taught this course, I detailed changes in the nominating process: how conventions before 1972 used to actually decide the nominee and how reforms gave that power to voters in party primaries and caucuses.

Given the Republican convention’s location — and my first experience actually attending a convention — I knew I would have more to say about conventions this time around. I certainly have more to say. But when it comes to assessing the significance, I’m not so sure. But I do know that a bullet point about “fun hats” will appear in my Power Point slides.

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