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Conventional Wisdom: A History of American Political Conventions

Attendees at the 1952 Republican National Convention, Chicago, IL (LOC)

Attendees at the 1952 Republican National Convention, Chicago, IL. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Did the Republican and Democratic Party conventions this year leave you longing for something more spontaneous and democratic? Satiate your intellectual yearning by tuning in to a recent episode of BackStory with the American History Guys. “Conventional Wisdom: A History of American Political Conventions” delves into the history of conventions and examines times when the stake were high and the outcomes were far from certain.

The American History Guys (a.k.a. Peter Onuf, Ed Ayers and the Miller Center’s own Brian Balogh) begin with a discussion of conventions in the 19th century when conventions were in their political heyday, when there was real brokering and when delegates were held accountable by the people they represented in their district. These conventions were a strange mix of civics and debauchery, lubricated by male bonding (including liquor and prostitutes) to persuade swing votes. 19th century conventions also served as hiring halls because governance was based on a patronage system controlled by the parties.

The episode also delves into the important questions of when and whether conventions have represented the people. In July 1848, for example, activists convened the Seneca Falls convention on women’s rights. Why was it a convention and not a meeting? Elizabeth Cady Stanton was intent on organizing a convention to set an agenda for the women’s rights movement that would be taken as seriously as the agenda for a political party. It was a way of saying: we want to be part of the system.

In 1964, activists also brought the struggle of civil rights and the challenges of segregation to the  Democratic Party convention in Atlantic city. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party comprised mostly of African Americans and two caucasians, arrived as a separate delegation to the party convention seeking representation. Lyndon B. Johnson, hoping not to alienate the white, southern base of the Democratic Party, told Hubert Humphrey that if he could prevent a walkout, he would get the number two position on the ticket. Humphrey took the bait and urged the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to accept a compromise of two seats. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party  didn’t accept the offer and instead chose to demonstrate on the streets of the Chicago. That was where the real action in 1964 occurred. The lesson drawn is that protesters focus attention to the unrepresentativeness of institutions, including conventions.

If you long for the days of convention spontaneity, such as the 1896 convention in which William Jennings Bryan delivered his famous Cross of God speech that propelled him to the presidential nomination, be sure to listen to this episode of BackStory. As the American History Guys and their guests demonstrate, while some conventions have perpetrated the politics of exclusion, other conventions been used as venues for change.

Does Jerusalem Matter In the 2012 Election?

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deliver a press conference following their meeting in the Oval Office. Screen-shot from official White House video. May 18, 2009. PD, courtesy of Executive Office of the President.

Last week a bit of controversy erupted on the Democratic Convention floor when the delegates were asked to vote on amending the platform to include God and recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Politico reported that President Obama himself ordered his staff to make the change after Republicans seized on both to attack the President and the party.

Democratic and Republican presidents alike have considered recognition of Jerusalem part of the final status negotiations. From Harry S. Truman through the presidency of George H.W. Bush, every president opposed Israel’s expansion in Jerusalem and asserted that the city should remain undivided.

However, for Democrats, official American policy upheld by presidents has differed from the party positions since 1972, when the party platform called for recognizing the “established status of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel” and called for relocating the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. With the exception of the 1988 Democratic Party platform in which Jerusalem was not mentioned even once, the Democratic Party was the first to call for recognition of Jerusalem and has maintained this position since. Presidential policy positions on Jerusalem shifted with the presidency of Bill Clinton. The Clinton administration essentially gave Israel a de facto green light for settlements in East Jerusalem, and the Clinton Parameters, established in 2000, broke from the long-standing position that Jerusalem remain an open city. The 2012 Democratic Party position emphasizes that Jerusalem is part of final status negotiations for the first time since the party’s began taking a position on the issue 40 years ago. This language is not surprising given that President Obama himself ordered the change to the party platform.

Party Animals or the Top Eleven Things I Learned at the Democratic Convention

1. No one can out-perform Bill Clinton, not the NFL or even a sitting president with incomparable rhetorical skills. Clinton soaked up the spotlight and enjoyed every moment of it. His speech reminded me of the 2000 SNL skit in which Clinton, following a presidential debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush, assures Americans he is doing everything he can to find a way to be president again. Obama's appearance on stage at the conclusion of Clinton’s speech was almost necessary to remind the public that he's the one running for president.

2. If your expectations for a speaker are high, you may be disappointed by actual performance. In the case of President Obama, for example, many expected to hear specifics about his second term policy agenda. Instead, we basically heard an amalgamation of speeches from the previous nights, featuring a laundry list of party positions and Democratic themes. As Larry Sabato aptly put it, it was nothing more than a glorified stump speech.

3. If your expectations for a speaker are low, you may be pleasantly surprised. John Kerry was on fire last night. I might have even paid to see his performance as a stand-up comedian, with his delivery of lines such as, “Ask Osama bin Laden if he’s better off now than he was four years ago.” Poking fun at Romney’s shifting positions on Iraq and Libya, Kerry said, “Talk about being for it before you were against it.”  Another highlight: “For Mitt Romney, an overseas trip is what you call it when you trip all over yourself overseas. It wasn't a goodwill mission – it was a blooper reel.” He could have topped his speech off with a line like, “For Mitt Romney, an overseas trip is visit to the ATM” or by asking “Will you elect a flip-flopper from Massachusetts?”

4. As a California delegate complained to me, the Convention was too focused on the president, his policy positions and policy accomplishments. Welcome to the presidency-centered programmatic party system that has been developing since FDR, with roots in TR’s presidency. As the California delegate pointed out though, Congressional races matter if the president wants to implement his second-term policy agenda.

5. For probably the first time in nearly half a century, the Democratic Party had an edge on national security and foreign affairs. And believe me, they milked it for all it was worth. However, it really was one important difference between the Republican and Democratic conventions. The Democrats emphasized Veterans and of course touted Bin Laden’s death, as well as action in Libya. Furthermore, the Democrats linked foreign policy with domestic policy, arguing that war and peace, and rich and poor, drive social issues domestically. Meanwhile, we barely heard any mention of foreign policy at the Republican convention, Condi Rice aside. Nor have the Republicans explained why they are calling for 100,000 new troops in their party platform or what they plan to do with them.

Convention Round-up Day Two

Rep. Ed Markey (Massachusetts)

Rep. Ed Markey (Massachusetts) delivers a keynote address during an event for convention delegates on the Obama administration’s national security policy sponsored by the Council for a Livable World. 9/5/2012. Photo by Carah Ong.

In this post, I offer some highlights from the second day of the convention floor. Stay tuned for a round-up of unconventional highlights.

Day two of the convention was filled with partisan appeals and once again focused on the policy accomplishments and positions of the Obama administration. The main thrust of the speeches was to convey the election as a choice over the future of the middle class, the American Dream and "shared opportunity, shared responsibility, all-in-it-together society." Sandra Fluke and Libby Bruce, among others, discussed what a Romney presidency would mean for women’s rights.  Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Maryland) drove home the differences in economic policies of the two presidential candidates, noting that the election is a choice that “will determine whether America is a place where people climb the ladder of opportunity and pull it up behind them or whether America is a place where people who reach the top help the next person up.” Rep. Nancy Pelosi (California) also called this election a choice not only of candidates, but also of issue positions:

Many names are on the ballot. So, too, is the character of our country…Medicare is on the ballot…Social Security is on the ballot…The hard-won rights of women are on the ballot…Our democracy is on the ballot. Democrats believe we must curb the influence of special interests on our political institutions…The American dream is on the ballot. Ladders of opportunity for our middle class are on the ballot.

Bill Clinton was by far the star of the evening, if not the convention thus far, engaging in partisan warfare. I predict that with his current favorability rating (coming in around 69%), Clinton’s attack dog performance will contribute to any convention bump President Obama receives.

An Expanding Ex-Presidency

President Obama and former President Clinton on June 4, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Obama and former President Clinton on June 4, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

When Jimmy Carter delivered his video message to the Democratic National Convention yesterday, he did so as the second-longest serving ex-president of all time. By the end of this week, he will be the longest-serving, exceeding Herbert Hoover’s 31 years and 232 days out of office – and building a compelling record of humanitarian endeavor along the way.
But it is the former president appearing at the convention tonight – Bill Clinton – whose expanding ex-presidency threatens to steal the show. And not just from Carter, but from the incumbent president whose campaign he is aiming to bolster.

Convention Round-up Day One: Democrats Offer Their Vision for the American Dream

The first evening of the Democratic Convention was filled with speeches driving home the first term policy accomplishments of President Barack Obama and values that undergird those policies. We heard a lot about the differences between the candidates on range of policies including Medicare, foreign policy, immigration, and tax policy. Nearly all of the speakers drove home the importance of the President’s healthcare bill, but this was especially the case for a family whose daughter had a congenital heart condition and, thanks to Obamacare, would now receive the coverage they needed. The main theme running through the various speeches was the Democratic Party’s interpretation of the American Dream – which requires an active role for government, government investment and individual contributions to become a reality.

More than Pre-Packaged Speeches: The importance of outside events to modern conventions

Protest of undocumented immigrants outside of the convention hall in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Protest of undocumented immigrants outside of the convention hall in Charlotte, North Carolina. September 4, 2012. Photo by Carah Ong.

CHARLOTTE, NC. --- Those who claim that the party conventions have become nothing more than pre-packaged speeches are missing an entire element of what modern conventions are about. Inside the convention halls, yes the parties put forward a line-up of loyal speakers to promote their candidate, party and platform. But outside the convention halls, interest groups (as well as lobbyists and businesses) are engaging in a whole range of activities that aren’t necessarily observed by the mainstream media or by political scientists. Yet, these activities make an important contribution to the role of conventions in modern elections.

At least in Charlotte, it’s not solely about the formal speeches or promoting the Democratic Party. The convention is also an event around which individuals and interest groups have the opportunity to organize, strategize and express public opinion. Such activities outside the formal convention are just as important to observe and monitor because they raise issues that you may not hear about in the official party agenda and they provide an opportunity for all individuals, not just the party loyal, to engage in political expression.

Greatest Hits from Democratic Conventions Since the Progressive Era

FDR delivers his acceptance speech at the 1936 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

FDR delivers his acceptance speech at the 1936 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Public Domain.

This week, I’ll be blogging from Charlotte, North Carolina about the Democratic National Convention, as well as many of the side events and shadow conventions that receive less coverage from the mainstream media. Last week, Robert Saldin, who was blogging for RTT from Tampa, Florida for the Republican Convention, offered his top four Greatest Hits in the Modern History of Republican Conventions. In this post, I offer what I think are some of the Greatest Hits from Democratic Conventions since the Progressive Era. Be sure to stay tuned this week for my “Missives from a Shadow Delegate.”

  1. William Jennings Bryan captured the party’s nomination in 1896 with a speech in which he famously declared, "You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!" In the “Cross of Gold” speech, Bryan argued that the Democratic Party’s focus on bi-metallism in its platform was justified because a gold standard alone could not solve the country’s problems at the time, including debt, small business failure, and monopolies. According to Bryan, if silver was restored, “all other necessary reforms will be possible.” He compared the situation to fights over the national bank, arguing: “What we need is an Andrew Jackson to stand, as Jackson stood, against the encroachments of organized wealth.” In the speech, Bryan also connected the Democratic Party’s tradition since Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson against moneyed interests in favor of the little guy. Bryan favored a regulatory role for government in issuing money and called for banks to “go out of the governing business.”
  2. In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the first presidential candidate to deliver an acceptance speech at a party convention. When he learned he had secured the nomination, FDR flew from Albany to Chicago to deliver the speech at the convention. He said, "I know that this is breaking precedent to appear before you on this floor, but we're in a middle of a Great Depression, and I intend to break a lot of precedents this year and also as President." In his acceptance speech, FDR also told the delegates, “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people.” The catch phrase became the basis for the sweeping political and economic changes FDR would enact as president. As I’ve noted previously on RTT, I also think FDR’s acceptance speech in 1936 was important for defining a new understanding of government.
  3. In 1976, Barbara Jordan became the first black and the first woman to deliver the Democratic Party’s keynote address. Instead of focusing on the nation’s problems, Jordan advocated coming together as a “national community.” “It's tough, difficult, not easy,” Jordan told the delegates, “But a spirit of harmony will survive in America only if each of us remembers that we share a common destiny; if each of us remembers, when self-interest and bitterness seem to prevail, that we share a common destiny.” Jordan was also the first female black senator elected to the Texas State Senate and she served as a U.S. Congresswoman from 1973-1978. Read the Miller Center’s Oral History with Jordan here.
  4. Barack Obama’s 2004 keynote address to the Democratic Convention in Boston made him a rising star in the party. In 2008, he became the first African American presidential candidate in the history of the two major political parties and accepted the nomination on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In the acceptance speech, Obama said both individual responsibility and mutual responsibility are “the essence of America’s promise,” and he called for a progressive agenda of change, while appealing to voters of all stripes.

Which convention speech or speeches would you would to the list of “greatest hits”?

Shifting the Message or Shifting the Party?

Fmr.Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at Ronald Reagan Centennial Celebration in Prague (2011)

Fmr.Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at Ronald Reagan Centennial Celebration in Prague. July 1, 2011. Photo by David Sedlecký. CC-SA.

When it comes to messaging, this Republican National Convention has offered a jarring departure from the traditional GOP script.  Typically, Republicans in convention have played to the longstanding partisan advantage they’ve enjoyed with the public on foreign affairs.  But that theme has been virtually absent here in Tampa.  In fact, for at least some of us in the audience, one welcome feature of Condoleezza Rice’s widely heralded speech last night was its partial departure from what has become a rather repetitive message over the last two days.  The former Secretary of State not only captivated a restless and distracted crowd, but actually offered remarks on something other than the economy.  Yet as refreshing as it was to hear a new message emanating from the podium, it’s actually the party’s otherwise monotonous focus on the economy and the budget that tells us much more about Mitt Romney’s Republican Party and that signals a major shift in GOP messaging.

In the modern “infomercial” era of national conventions, the parties’ most important task is to explain to millions of television viewers why they should vote Democrat or Republican.  This objective produces what social scientists might call a “data rich” event in which dozens of party elites read carefully scripted messages to convey the party’s message to the public and—just as importantly—to educate the assembled delegates about what, exactly, that message is.

For scholars of parties and the party system, these messages are a potential treasure trove.  They’re easily accessible and comprise an unrivaled guide to the parties’ public philosophies.  Yet few scholars write about or pay much attention to—let alone show up at—party conventions.  University of Wisconsin political scientists Byron Shafer, who has been attending both major party conventions since 1980, is a notable exception.

Shafer’s work emphasizes:

“Every convention, no matter how well or badly managed, no matter how modestly or even thinly covered, does succeed in putting some messages—substantive arguments plus operational impressions—in front of a general public that, while viewership and ratings have declined, still registers in the multi-millions.” 

Democrats and Republicans have traditionally offered divergent messages during their respective conventions.  While Democrats have tended to focus on social welfare issues, Republicans have generally showcased foreign affairs. But—Rice aside—that’s not we’ve seen here in Tampa.  Foreign affairs haven’t just played second fiddle to domestic issues, they’ve been almost entirely missing from the Republican message.  An economically-oriented message would always be expected from budget hawks like Paul Ryan and Chris Christie.  But this year’s GOP message clearly goes deeper than that.  The Republicans gathered here in Tampa have chosen to ignore foreign affairs and have gone all-in on the economy and their “grown-up” approach to the budget.  The outcome of the election in November will likely tell us a lot about whether this year’s shift in GOP messaging represents an enduring change in the party’s presentation of itself to the American public or is merely a temporary diversion.

Barnburner or Instant Star?: Conversion Stories at Republican Conventions

Representative Artur Davis

Representative Artur Davis. June 1, 2009. Photo by the Artur Davis Campaign. CC-SA.

The old adage that “if you’re not a liberal when you’re 20, you have no heart, and if you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 40, you have no brain” is much more than a clever quip at Republican conventions.  The convert story has a long history at these GOP gatherings and has come to hold a semi-official place on the program.  Last night Artur Davis was the latest Democrat-turned-Republican to fill this slot.  And while the prime-time TV audience may have missed it, inside the hall, Davis and his conversion story was the sleeper hit of the night that captivated the GOP faithful.

Democratic conventions often have their own breakout performances, too.  In 2004, for instance, Barack Obama’s speech made him an instant star.  In 2008, Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer offered up a classic red meat barnburner that upstaged the evening’s headliners.

But for Republicans, it’s often the story of the disillusioned ex-Democrat that steals the show.  This time-honored role at GOP conventions has no corollary at the Democratic counterpart (though Charlie Christ will try his hand at it next week in Charlotte).

Part of the explanation for Republicans’ adoration for the convert may lie in the relative lack of youthful energy and idealism that often fuels Democratic conventions and electoral campaigns.  Lacking that rock star quality— which Davis summarized last night as “plywood Greek columns and artificial smoke…Hollywood stars and glamour,”—Republicans like to counter with, as Chris Christie put it during his show-closing Keynote Address, “tell[ing] us the hard truths we need to hear.”  Who better to hammer home this sober message for Republican true believers than a convert who used to revel in the Democrats’ decadent culture of Valhalla excess?

Enter RTT’s Convention Bump Contest

Since 1964, Gallup polling has shown that, on average, a presidential candidate will earn a five percentage point “bump” in polls following their party’s convention. Of course, bumps for individual candidates vary and the sustainability of a post-convention bump depends upon circumstances and events that follow (e.g. financial crisis, poor debate performance, ect.). Furthermore, a convention bump doesn’t necessarily mean election victory.

As anticipation builds (at least among the party loyal) for the the Republican and Democratic National Conventions this week and next, we’ve decided to once again indulge your political junkie pleasures with a Convention Bump contest. Here are the rules.

Enter the following information in the "Comments" to this post by 5 pm on Friday, August 31:

  1. Your prediction of how much of a bump Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will get following their party's respective conventions.
  2. Tell us how long the bump will last.
  3. You can, of course, predict no bump at all or a negative one (John Kerry, for example lost one percentage point following the Democratic convention in 2004).

Winner(s) will receive a coveted Miller Center T-shirt and be featured in a blog post with nominal title of RTT’s “Political Junkie of the Week.”

Greatest Hits in the Modern History of Republican Conventions

Ronald Reagan, “A Time for Choosing,” October 27, 1964

As the Republican Party convenes in Tampa (albeit a day late), it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on past gatherings.  Here are my nominations for greatest hits of GOP conventions in the modern era:

1. Barry Goldwater, acceptance of 1964 presidential nomination

A touchstone in the history of the Republican Party and the American conservative movement, the Arizona Senator’s unapologetic speech rallied the faithful and exacerbated the GOP’s internal ideological split.  It also diverged from the standard acceptance speech formula.  Goldwater’s address pulled no punches and was devoid of the customary vapid overtures to one’s political opponents.  Instead, “Mr. Conservative” reminded the country that “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice…Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

2. Pat Buchanan, 1992 Keynote Address

In a now-infamous speech delivered after Buchanan’s failed attempt to wrest the GOP nomination from sitting President George H.W. Bush, the former Reagan staffer alleged a “culture war” was on.  The enemy was clear: “the malcontents” at the Democratic convention, “environmental extremists,” the media, “radical feminism,” and the Clinton agenda calling for “abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, [and] women in combat.”  Many Republicans argued that Buchanan should never have been given such a prominent speaking role and were convinced his nationally televised remarks cost the Bush-Quayle ticket independent votes in November.

3. Zell Miller, 2004 Keynote Address

The Georgia Senator filled the unofficial Disillusioned Democrat slot at the Republican Convention eight years ago.  With the Iraq War in full swing, Miller’s scathing address focused on foreign policy and his party’s alleged abandonment of national security and capitulation to terrorists:  “I can remember when Democrats believed it was the duty of America to fight for freedom over tyranny…Time after time in our history, in the face of great danger, Democrats and Republicans worked together to ensure that freedom would not falter.  But not today.  Motivated more by partisan politics than by national security, today’s Democratic leaders see America as an occupier, not a liberator.  And nothing makes this Marine madder than someone calling American troops occupiers rather than liberators!”

4. Sarah Palin, acceptance of 2008 vice-presidential nomination

It’s easy to forget that there were several days when John McCain’s running mate selection appeared to be the stuff of political genius.  The high point for the Alaska Governor—and perhaps for the 2008 McCain campaign—was her riveting convention speech accepting the vice-presidential nomination.  Even those who didn’t like the message were impressed with the delivery, and the Obama-Biden campaign was reportedly concerned that they’d been outmaneuvered by her surprise addition to the GOP ticket.  Despite Code Pink protesters in the audience and a broken teleprompter, she didn’t miss a beat.  Of course, the wheels came off shortly after the Straight Talk Express pulled out of Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Palin never fully recovered from her interview with ABC’s Charlie Gibson and her discussion of newspapers with Katie Couric.  But for one night at least, Palin appeared to be just the game changer McCain was looking for.

Honorable Mention: Ronald Reagan, “A Time for Choosing” aka “The Speech,” 1964

Technically, the most legendary Republican convention speech wasn’t a convention speech at all.  It’s a common misconception that this Reagan classic was delivered at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco.  In fact, the Democrat-turned-Republican and future president actually gave his most famous address in a made-for-TV special in the campaign’s closing days.  And while “The Speech” may not have been enough to save Barry Goldwater from an historic landslide defeat at the hands of President Lyndon Johnson, it made Reagan a GOP star and became a manifesto for the conservative movement.

Will there be any additions to the list this week?  We’ll know soon enough.  The best bets: “Hurricane” Chris Christie’s Keynote Address tonight and Paul Ryan’s Vice Presidential acceptance speech tomorrow.

Do the Party Conventions Matter Anymore?

Mitt Romney & Paul Ryan at a Rally in Manassas, VA. August 12, 2012.

Mitt Romney & Paul Ryan at a Rally in Manassas, VA. August 12, 2012. Photo by Monkeyz_uncle. CC-SA.

This week Riding the Tiger will feature daily updates live from the Republican National Convention in Tampa, FL by Robert Saldin, Associate Professor of American Government and Politics at the University of Montana and a former Miller Center Fellow.

TAMPA, FL -- A hurricane has prompted the Republicans to cancel the opening night of their convention…again.  Four years ago, with Hurricane Gustav bearing down on the Gulf Coast, the GOP scrapped day one of their convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul.  Not that anyone seemed to notice.  Most first night speakers were simply reassigned to Tuesday.  And with the star power backloaded into the final two nights, it wasn’t clear that anything substantive was lost.  This time is different only in that the Republicans find themselves in the storm’s path.

But with tonight now an official a no-go, it’s hard to find anyone here in Tampa who is too upset by the cancellation, even—or, perhaps, especially—among the delegates.  After all, the restaurants and bars are still open, and the hundreds of parties throughout the bay area are proceeding as planned.  Many attendees are enjoying some time on the beach in between rain showers.  And the television networks had never been planning to show up for the opening night.  Of course, the mood could change considerably if evacuations are announced or additional nights of the convention are curtailed or cancelled.  But as of now, the assembled partisans continue their party, now unburdened by tonight’s session at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

Which raises the question: What’s the point of these conventions in the 21st Century?  Decades ago, party conventions played a substantive role in the presidential selection process, but now they’re routinely derided as overly-scripted, phony, campaign commercials.

Achieving an Unprecendented Third Term: Foreign Affairs and Roosevelt’s 1940 Nomination

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Acceptance Speech, Democratic National Convention, July 19, 1940.

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Sixty-two years ago today, President Franklin D. Roosevelt accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for the presidency, officially breaking the two-term precedent George Washington had set. In his speech to the delegates on July 19, 1940, Roosevelt’s reasoning for seeking and accepting the position was, not “the call of Party” alone, but the need for continuity in foreign and defense policy given the circumstances in Europe and Asia and the threats they posed to security of the United States. Roosevelt told the delegates:

Like most men of my age, I had made plans for myself, plans for a private life of my own choice and for my own satisfaction, a life of that kind to begin in January, 1941. These plans, like so many other plans, had been made in a world, which now seems as distant as another planet. Today all private plans, all private lives, have been in a sense repealed by an overriding public danger. In the face of that public danger all those who can be of service to the Republic have no choice but to offer themselves for service in those capacities for which they may be fitted.

Indeed, the critical situation in foreign affairs played an important role in Roosevelt’s ability to control the 1940 convention. Following his failed attempt to purge anti-New Deal Democrats in the 1938 mid-term election campaign, Congress passed the 1939 Hatch Act, which barred federal employees from participating in campaigns. The Roosevelt administration had been making use of federal workers in local and state political activity, including in some of the 1938 purge campaigns. These workers were part of a New Deal organization that operated independent of the Democratic Party machinery. The New York Times reported on August 6, 1939 that the Hatch Act was a “direct outgrowth of strong arm federal politics, of partisan use of the money appropriated and the powers delegated to the executive by Congress…it was the child of ‘the purge’.”

Although Roosevelt had faced a “no third term” movement for the nomination from critics within his own party in the aftermath of the failed purge, the president carefully maneuvered to broaden his coalition in the 1940 campaign. This effort centered especially on building broad support for his internationalist and interventionist foreign policies. The president also strategically brought prominent Republican internationalists into his fold. Most deftly, following the 1940 presidential campaign, Roosevelt tapped Wendell Wilkie, the recently defeated Republican presidential candidate, to serve as the president’s personal emissary to Winston Churchill. Earlier in 1940, the president appointed Frank Knox, the Republican vice presidential nominee in 1936, to his cabinet and drafted Henry Stimson, also a Republican leader, to serve as his new Secretary of War. The reconstruction of his coalitional base of support was indeed another way in which Roosevelt sought to transcend partisan politics.

Reagan’s Coalition Building and the Compact of Freedom

Ronald Wilson Reagan, Acceptance Speech to the Republican National Convention, July 17, 1980.

Thirty-two years today, on July 17, 1980, Ronald Reagan addressed the Republican National Convention and accepted the party’s nomination for the presidency. As the excerpts below reveal, his speech stressed the themes of American values, reducing government growth, balancing the budget, the need to revitalize the nation’s defense and the need to take a leadership role in the world.

Isn't it once again time to renew our compact of freedom; to pledge to each other all that is best in our lives; all that gives meaning to them--for the sake of this, our beloved and blessed land?...

As your nominee, I pledge to restore to the federal government the capacity to do the people's work without dominating their lives…

America must get to work producing more energy. The Republican program for solving economic problems is based on growth and productivity…

It is essential that we maintain both the forward momentum of economic growth and the strength of the safety net beneath those in society who need help. We also believe it is essential that the integrity of all aspects of Social Security are preserved…

Beyond these essentials, I believe it is clear our federal government is overgrown and overweight. Indeed, it is time for our government to go on a diet…

I have long advocated a 30 percent reduction in income tax rates over a period of three years. This phased tax reduction would begin with a 10 percent "down payment" tax cut in 1981, which the Republicans and Congress and I have already proposed…

It is time to put America back to work; to make our cities and towns resound with the confident voices of men and women of all races, nationalities and faiths bringing home to their families a decent paycheck they can cash for honest money…

Adversaries large and small test our will and seek to confound our resolve, but we are given weakness when we need strength; vacillation when the times demand firmness…. The administration which has brought us to this state is seeking your endorsement for four more years of weakness, indecision, mediocrity and incompetence. No American should vote until he or she has asked, is the United States stronger and more respected now than it was three-and-a-half years ago? Is the world today a safer place in which to live?... I would regard my election as proof that we have renewed our resolve to preserve world peace and freedom. This nation will once again be strong enough to do that…

Tonight, let us dedicate ourselves to renewing the American compact. I ask you not simply to "Trust me," but to trust your values – our values – and to hold me responsible for living up to them. I ask you to trust that American spirit which knows no ethnic, religious, social, political, regional, or economic boundaries; the spirit that burned with zeal in the hearts of millions of immigrants from every corner of the Earth who came here in search of freedom.

But like many modern campaigns where the real proving ground for nominees takes place in the primaries, the 1980 Republican convention was more ceremonial than decision-making. Reagan’s real concerted campaign for the Republican Party’s nomination for the presidency began even before he stepped down from the governorship of California.