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Essay: The Democrats And Party Conventions

Win McNamee
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden delivers his acceptance speech on the fourth night of the Democratic National Convention.

The 2020 Democratic National Convention was historic in many ways. For the first time, the convention was held virtually due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19. On Wednesday night California Senator Kamala Harris was the first Black and Asian-American woman to accept the nomination for Vice President in a major party.

Lake Effect contributor Art Cyr takes a historical look at what the office of Vice President represents in his essay, “The Democrats and Party Conventions”.

The Democratic National Convention scheduled for Milwaukee is now essentially “virtual” as a result of the Covid-19 public health challenge. Former Vice President Joe Biden secured sufficient party delegates for the nomination in early June, after an intense series of primary battles, where initially he was losing.

Attention focused on the selection of his running mate, where Biden committed to choosing a woman. That would not be a first. Republican nominee Senator John McCain selected Alaska Governor Sarah Palin in 2008, and Democratic nominee former Vice President Walter Mondale selected New York Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro in 1984. The Democrats also nominated a woman for president, former Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016.

On August 11, Biden announced his running mate would be California Senator Kamala Harris, a primary election rival. She is the first Asian-American as well as first Black woman on a major party presidential election ticket. Her mother was born in India, her father in Jamaica.

In the past, party conventions selected rather than confirming these nominees. However, that ended after 1952.

As the Republican Convention convened in Chicago, enormously popular General Dwight Eisenhower was trailing in delegates at the start, behind party loyalist front-runner Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, nicknamed “Mr. Republican.” Through an enormously skillful, carefully planned operation, Eisenhower forces outmaneuvered the Taft delegates and secured victory.

As this implies, party conventions continue to be important for fostering party unity, especially after tough battles, through both public reconciliation and private negotiation. In 1976, former Governor Ronald Reagan challenged incumbent – though unelected – President Gerald Ford in a battle that continued into the convention. In 1980, Senator Ted Kennedy similarly challenged President Jimmy Carter for the party nomination.

Both Ford and Carter lost in the fall elections. One factor was the failure of the nominee fully to integrate insurgent forces after securing the prize. Biden’s success in winning the nomination reflects various important factors, including the expansion in importance of the office of vice president. For that, thank Richard M. Nixon.

John Nance Garner, who suffered as vice president under the dominant FDR, declared crudely that the office was not worth a pitcher of warm spit. Nixon changed that, bringing the importance of the post in line with the reality that a number of vice presidents have in fact succeeded to the Oval Office.

Nixon’s political road was always difficult and rocky, right up until his resignation from the presidency, partly because of his own self-defeating ways, partly because of other circumstance. Dwight Eisenhower did not welcome him as his running mate in 1952, used a controversy over alleged misuse of campaign funds to try to force him off, and more politely encouraged his departure four years later.

Nixon was a vital bridge between the internationalist wing of the party, concentrated in the Northeast, which was crucial to Eisenhower’s nomination in 1952, and the extremely powerful right wing coalesced around Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. He was important to Ike’s nomination, but also anathema to the president’s allies in the Northeast.

Nixon worked relentlessly to build formidable party support and foreign policy expertise. In 1960, when Ike’s East Coast backers supported New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller as successor, Nixon took those expensive suits to the cleaners.

Vice Presidents Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, George H.W. Bush, Al Gore, and now Joe Biden became presidential nominees in part thanks to Nixon’s expansion of that office.

Arthur I. Cyr is Director of the Clausen Center for World Business and Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha. Previously he was President of the Chicago World Trade Center, the Vice President of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, a faculty member and executive at UCLA, and an executive at the Ford Foundation. His publications include the book After the Cold War - American Foreign Policy, Europe and Asia (Macmillan and NYU Press).