Online Newshour Interview with Historian Michael Beschloss
Origins of the convention process
To gain some understanding of this month's national Democratic and Republican conventions, the Online Newshour turns to historian Michael Beschloss. He talks about how two centuries of vigorous democracy has shaped an uniquely American political landscape.
LEAH CLAPMAN, Online Newshour: Let's start with the basic question of when and how the convention process came to be.
Michael Beschloss discusses:
Memorable platform fights and floor speeches
The role of third parties in Presidential elections
Bob Dole and the Presidential election of 1980
June 4, 1979:
The MacNeil/Lehrer Report profiles Senator Bob Dole
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: First of all, there's no mention of political parties in the Constitution, so you begin American history with not only no political conventions but also no parties. As parties began to develop around the turn of the 19th century, you had party nominees for President nominated in caucuses made up of party members in Congress. And this went on for about 25 years until the late 1920's. And then you had America expanding very quickly. You had members of parties who were beyond the Eastern seaboard and also outside of Congress. And they were demanding a say over the presidential nominee. And so, thus, beginning in 1831, you had the development of the presidential nominating convention, in this case by the Anti-Masonic Party which had the first one. It seemed such a good idea, and so the result is that really from the 1830's on you had presidential nominees getting the nomination in conventions.
LEAH CLAPMAN: Why did the Anti-Masons turn to conventions instead of the traditional caucus process?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: They made the argument that this was a way of including the mass of the American people in the selection of the presidential nominee. And this was part of an overall development because at the very beginning a presidential nominee was chosen really by an elite in the electoral college. And as time went on, you kept on having that expanded. First, you had presidential nominees chosen by parties which expanded the web a little bit. And then when you had presidential nominees chosen in conventions, that brought others in from all over the country, and it allowed the Anti-Masons and the other parties to say this is someone who has been chosen not by an elite in the national capital Washington but chosen by the grassroots. That's a very powerful appeal for a party to have even in 1996.
LEAH CLAPMAN: There used to be long exciting roll call votes. It took 49 ballots to elect Franklin Pierce in 1852. Talk a little bit about the conventions back then.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: From the beginning of the presidential nominating conventions in the 1830's really through the 1950's, you had conventions that actually did real business. And by that, I mean you had delegates who came to a convention and they wouldn't really know for sure who would be the nominee who would come out of that convention in most cases because not only were the delegates divided but they also were not pledged undyingly to a particular candidate. For instance, a delegate could come to a convention, pledged perhaps to Franklin Pierce, but then perhaps between the time he was made a delegate and the time he came to the convention, he might think perhaps Pierce was not a good idea and change his vote to someone else. So the result was that as one approached a political convention for most of the 19th century and for most of the 20th century until the 1960's, part of the drama was the fact that you didn't know ultimately who was going to be the nominee at the end of that convention week. Oftentimes during the period in which conventions really did business, you had situations where the delegates were divided and you would have ballot after ballot before there was a final nominee.
One example was the Republicans in Chicago, 1920. There was a deadlock among a number of candidates, a number of ballots, until you finally had leaders of the party retreating into the famous back smoke-filled rooms, and that's where that term first came from, in which they decided on a dark horse, Senator Warren Harding of Ohio. They agreed to throw their votes to him. And so the result was that Harding, who was a figure whom many Americans had never heard of, turned out to be the nominee at the end of that week, something that was a surprise to everyone but the only solution to a very divided convention. Four years later, 1924, the Democrats had roughly the same experience, but they went actually through nine very hot days to 103 ballots, until they finally nominated John Davis, who was a rather obscure West Virginia lawyer, as their compromise candidate, after this great nine days of very raucous divisions that threatened to tear apart that party.
LEAH CLAPMAN: Once the delegates and party leaders got to the convention, were there just debates and discussion over the candidates, or were there deals being made? Were promises being made that had to be kept when the election was finished?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: The process you had was that candidates were dealing with one another, their managers were--in some cases managers were making promises in the candidate's name that the candidate didn't even know about, and perhaps might have preferred had not been made. And the result was that it was almost like the floor of Congress. You had deals being made--you know--let's throw your ballots to Mr. X on the next ballot. And the result of all this was that the convention was a real process and in a way it was a reflection of democracy because you had people from all over the country, from the elite, from the leadership of Congress, from the rank and file, from the grassroots, all getting together. And in a way, that convention floor was a pretty good representation of the distribution of power in America. So the result was that in many cases the conventions really did represent the underlying electoral topography of the United States.
LEAH CLAPMAN: Interesting. Was there any backlash? I mean, if they came out of the--if the party elders came out of the convention and they said, okay, Harding is our nominee, did the rest of America ever say: Who? And what would happen after that?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Today in the era of 1996 if you had bosses in a smoke-filled room choose a candidate, especially a candidate like Warren Harding or John Davis, someone most Americans have never heard of, Americans would be very angry about that because they would say this was someone chosen in a back room by leaders without consulting the people, someone we haven't heard of. That would cast such a shadow over that nominee that it would be very hard for that person to win the presidency. But in the earlier era, that was not the case. There was a general feeling that political conventions chose nominees with a great deal of self-assurance. There was a feeling in those days that if a nominee came out of a political convention, it was because he was a worthy possible president. There was such faith in those days in political parties and in conventions that people were willing to accept a decision made by a convention even if that decision, as in the case of Harding in 1920 for the Republicans, or Davis in 1924 for the Democrats, even in the case when someone like that was chosen by bosses in a private room.
LEAH CLAPMAN: So it was a different culture back then, a different political culture. Now the nominating process has come out from behind those closed doors, and we have primaries where the candidate is chosen by the people. What do you think of that change? How does that change reflect changes in American democracy at this time?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: For most of American history, Americans had a lot of leaders and institutions and party leaders and party conventions. So as a result, for most of the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th century when you had nominees chosen in conventions by party leaders and party workers and officeholders, Americans thought these delegates were people who had worked alongside the possible nominees for a long time. When you serve alongside someone in the Senate or perhaps as a governor, you see things about him or her that perhaps you don't see when you're just a voter--
LEAH CLAPMAN: Watching a commercial--
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Watching a commercial or seeing glimpses of the person in terms of what they say in the newspapers, and so for much of American history, Americans were not only ready but happy to accept the political parties and political conventions as a screening process to make sure that someone unworthy did not make it into possible contention as a possible President of the United States. As a result, public faith in conventions really mirrored public faith in institutions such as political parties. Then you get to the last half of the 20th century, Americans are getting very skeptical about their leaders and their institutions, and another place that is affected is parties and conventions. By the 1960's, Americans are saying they think it's a bad thing to have nominees chosen in conventions because those are bosses and party leaders and they have their own prejudices. It is a much more democratic thing to choose nominees in presidential primaries across the country. So what you see mirrored in the system is a change from the old faith in representative democracy in which some decisions were made by leaders and representatives, to an almost automatic feeling that any decision that is made by the electorate is going to be better than a decision made by any elite. And this is very much symbolized in the shift from conventions to primaries.
LEAH CLAPMAN: How has that shift affected the types of presidential candidates we've seen?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: You have had presidential candidates over the last 30 years who would have had a very hard time getting nominated under the old system. One example is John Kennedy. John Kennedy in 1960 was very popular among the American electorate, but among party leaders and members of Congress, these were people who had served with Kennedy in Congress for 14 years. They knew that he didn't take his job in the House and Senate very seriously. He was very absentee. He did not have a particularly shining legislative record. So if 1960 had occurred under the old convention system, Kennedy would have had a very hard time getting the Democratic nomination because he would have been rejected by all those people who had worked with him in Washington. Instead, 1960 is one of the first years in which presidential primaries had a very large influence on the nominating process. Kennedy ran in seven primaries; he won every one of them. And the result was that he was able to argue: I have succeeded in every primary I've entered, therefore, your states that do not have primaries should really vote for me because I have the greatest chance of defeating Richard Nixon in the fall. And that is exactly what happened.
LEAH CLAPMAN: Because of the election reforms of the 1970's and 80's, delegates are locked into their votes. They have to vote for the person who was listed on the primary ballot. Does that make the convention system irrelevant now?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It's not very fluid these days because delegates are in a situation in which they are forced to vote for a certain person. They might feel passionately about candidate X but perhaps being persuaded, and, therefore, there was some drama and spontaneity. Now that's really gone. In 1980, there was a movement by the Ted Kennedy forces to release the Carter delegates from their pledge to vote for Jimmy Carter. They wore round buttons with a picture of a robot with a slash through it saying, "Don't turn delegates into robots." But they were defeated, and Jimmy Carter was nominated.
LEAH CLAPMAN: So will we ever see another brokered convention?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: We will never see another seriously brokered convention unless you see a couple of things. There is a possibility that you would have a primary process that results in a number of candidates not having enough votes to win. It's fairly unlikely but not impossible. Another possibility is if Americans finally say that the presidential primary process is in conventions, perhaps in caucuses, and that the idea of this is that you bring in delegates from various sections of the party with different types of expertise, and perhaps that mix will produce a better nominee than simply voters, for instance, in New Hampshire who may have never heard of the candidate a couple of weeks earlier and have seen him only in television commercials. It's not likely that that's going to happen, though, because Americans have a very strong tradition. Once they're given a measure of power, such as voting directly for presidential nominees, they are very reluctant to give it back.
LEAH CLAPMAN: Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were adamantly opposed to parties, and it seems that the convention process exaggerates the differences between the two parties by the fact that they have to come up with their platforms, and they often attack each other during the convention. What would the Founding Fathers have thought about the process today?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: The Founding Fathers would be sorry to see that America had become so divided and factionalized. There was an early feeling among the founders that unlike everyone else in the world, Americans don't touch their emotional investment in their country and that they wouldn't clash with one another, they would reason together and arrive at common decisions about authority in political issues in a calm way. Some of the later of the early founders, however, began to have more pessimistic views of human nature. They realized that divisiveness and factions are inevitable and the best thing you can do is to create a system that deals with these divisions. Those founders would say that our party system is just absolutely excellent because it ferrets out issues, it gets people to examine their differences and resolve them, and it also, in terms of the platform process, commits parties and nominees to principled positions that they really should stick to or at least pay a penalty if they stray from them. One other thing. The founders were very worried that if parties developed in America, you might have something like the modern Italian system, where you have 20 different parties that divide Congress and the country and can't govern. The founders, I think, would be absolutely delighted to see that after over two centuries, you have not twenty parties but really two major parties that have differences but also serve to unify the country in terms of the fact that both the Republicans and Democrats know that neither of those parties can win, and to some extent serves as an umbrella party bringing in people from all over the country with very different views.