It was July 1984, and ABC correspondent Sam Donaldson, as usual highly aggressive and widely respected, was waiting for the start of the Democratic National Convention. The event was to be staged in the Moscone Center in San Francisco, Calif. As he walked by my post, he pointed out the completeness of his preparation.
The floor of the convention center was concrete, the building itself vast, and tiered ever upward. As the new stories and the floor fights between the contending factions of the party broke open, Sam was ready to move quickly between each state’s delegation. “Brand new tennis shoes,” he said to me.
He should have saved his money, because other than an early attempt by the nominee, former Vice President Walter Mondale, to remove the national chairman, Iowan Charles Manatt, and then the nomination of Geraldine Ferraro to be vice president, nothing happened.
The Democrats had learned their lesson from the disastrous gathering in Chicago in 1968; and the same lesson the Republicans took from their bloody battle in 1964 when Sen. Barry Goldwater practically drove moderate GOPers out of the hall. Conventions should not be about nominations, but coronations of a previously determined individual.
In fact, delegates are asked to be in attendance to serve only one purpose, and it is not to share either their collective or individual judgment. Delegates are props for a highly structured and theatrical presentation. Attendees are expected to sit in their seats, cheer when told and try to stay out of the cash bar until the nominee has given their acceptance speech. Everything is choreographed as prepared by a hired Hollywood producer. Unity is shown, the anointed loved and the message delivered.
This is the way it is supposed to work, irrespective of party. This is why network coverage has been reduced through the years to covering only highlights during prime time. Controversy avoided, togetherness stressed, and then get out of town.
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While the Democrats are looking forward to taking on President Donald Trump, they may be overlooking the real danger of disunity and factionalism at their national gathering. Democrats have new rules as to the nominating procedure and as an experienced politician, I can tell you there is nothing more dangerous than new rules.
First, you have a multiplicity of candidates, and it is not inconceivable the convention will open without a clear consensus of which one of the many running is the chosen one. Secondly, even in contested conventions of the past there was leadership within the ranks. The donkeys are proposing to gather an army of followers without any generals, captains or sergeants, because they have decreed “super delegates,” elected party leaders, are precluded from voting until the second ballot. Almost everyone is a free agent, and if their choice remains in the race, no requirement to unite can move them forward.
Finally, the scars of 2016 remain. Roughly 40 percent of the party is deemed progressive, the remainder moderate. Tempering the hostility between those who want to run for office on principle and those who place a higher premium on winning isn’t going to be easy. Where will the Sanders followers go this time? What if Elizabeth Warren is not the nominee? Can a moderate, should they prevail, keep everyone moving in the same direction? It is not going to be easy.
There is a model for the party to follow and it happened in 1952, when Sen. Robert A. Taft was denied the Republican nomination. This even though he had won most of the primaries and started the convention with a majority of delegates. A rule change engineered by New York Gov. Thomas Dewey was passed by 10 votes, and it gave Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower the win. Taft, known with good cause and earned affection as “Mr. Republican,” went home to Ohio and stayed there. Finally, a later direct meeting between the two brought about reconciliation, and the rest is history.
I do not profess to know whether President Donald Trump can win re-election. I do know he may have a secret weapon: The Democrats are holding a national convention with new rules.