Why modern political conventions are misleading

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Finally it’s over. The quadrennial showcasing of America’s political leaders delivering largely vacuous speeches came to a merciful end Thursday night with Barack Obama’s acceptance of the Democratic Party’s nomination for president of the United States. The talking heads on cable news found things to say, as they always do, but it’s difficult to say much of substance about empty speeches. Little wonder the television networks broadcast only one hour each night of both conventions.

Part of the problem is that nothing is really at stake at today’s national political conventions. Oh, the Republicans had a little flap over rules relating to the seating of delegates and it took three votes for the Democrats to resolve whether the word “God” should be in their platform. But nobody save party activists really cares about the party platforms, and the pretense of calling the nominees “presumptive” before formal votes are cast is like reporting that James Holmes is the “alleged” killer of moviegoers in Colorado. We know he did it and we knew months ago that Mitt and Barack were the two parties’ presidential nominees.

So what’s the point of these conventions? Political junkies love getting together with other political junkies. It’s invigorating, even if no one is listening to most of the speeches and nothing important is being said or decided. And some of the speeches do rally the base. There is enough red meat for every special interest to hold out hope that if their guy wins they might get a piece of the action.

But what about the folks back home? Is there anything they might have learned from these orchestrated gatherings of Democrats and Republicans? Yes there is, and it’s not uplifting.

The president, it seems, is the key to achieving every ambition we might have for ourselves, our communities, our nation and even the world. The Democrats were repetitively explicit on this theme. Keynote speaker Julian Castro set the stage by asking how we can multiply the individual successes celebrated by Republicans at their convention. “The answer is President Barack Obama,” he said. Speaker after speaker followed on the theme that every good will be achieved, and every evil avoided, if Obama is re-elected. Even the economy, still in recession after three and a half years of Obama’s leadership, will be revived if he is given four more years to get the job done.

For their part the Republicans pressed the case for small government and lower taxes, but they too insisted that everything depends on the election of Mitt Romney. Romney knows how to create jobs. He knows how the economy works. He cares about the down and out and will see to their wants and needs. Government isn’t the answer, insisted the Republicans, but they are so much a part of what Washington has become they cannot escape also insisting that Mitt Romney can fix our economy and get people working.

Both parties and their nominees maintained that only they speak the truth. Both stated precise numbers of jobs lost or created, surpluses or deficits decades in the future, targets to be achieved in the near and long term. Both seemed to adhere to the adage that if you repeat something over and over again, it becomes the truth. But the truth is that nobody knows what a president can accomplish because most of what matters to people is beyond a president’s control.

What presidents can do is influence the extent to which government either facilitates or obstructs the creative forces that drive our economy. Sometimes obstruction (usually in the form of regulation) is appropriate, where the costs of creativity exceed the benefits. And sometimes direct facilitation in the form of spending on public goods (infrastructure and basic research) is appropriate.

But when we wait with baited breath for this morning’s August unemployment numbers from the Department of Labor in anticipation of blaming or crediting the president, we either misunderstand or misrepresent the power of the president and of the government he leads. Despite abundant evidence drawn from across the 20th century that economies cannot be effectively managed and that attempts to do so often have disastrous consequences for the least well off, both political parties left voters with the message that their guy will create jobs, fix the economy and provide for those in need. The Democrats believe it. The Republicans, for the most part, do not. But their convention, despite the efforts of Chris Christie, Paul Ryan and Clint Eastwood, showed they have not yet figured out how to compete in a world of interest group and entitlement politics while speaking honestly about the economy and the role and powers of the president.

Perhaps it cannot be done. With fewer than half of our citizens actually paying federal income taxes, maybe we are beyond the point where a candidate for president can speak the truth about the relationship between government and the economy. In that case, not only are the conventions irrelevant, but we are headed for a bleak future no matter who is elected.

Jim Huffman is the dean emeritus of Lewis & Clark Law School, the co-founder of Northwest Free Press and a member of the Hoover Institution’s De Nault Task Force on Property Rights, Freedom and Prosperity.

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