Balloon failure, 1980


The news that the founder of the American Muslim Council pled guilty today to engaging illegally in business with Libya, and last Thursday night's balloon deployment failure at the end of the Democrat National Convention brought back memories of 24 years ago, when Libyan connections overshadowed another Democrat convention, and the balloons wouldn't fall that year either.

You may recall that in 1980 Sen. Ted Kennedy had challenged President Carter for the nomination, and although Carter had the lead coming out of the primary season, Kennedy refused to drop out.

Toward the middle of July 1980, Billy Carter, presidential brother, acknowledged that he was being compensated by the government of Libya to serve as that country's agent. By the end of the month, the White House and the Attorney General had admitted to knowing about the connection, the Senate had announced plans to investigate, and a "dump Carter" movement began to build momentum. Democrat leaders could smell disaster and were afraid that Jimmy Carter would take down the whole party with him -- and they were right to be afraid.

Still, Carter had enough pledged delegates to assure his renomination. There were calls from Democratic congressmen and governors for Carter to release the delegates pledged to him, so that they could vote their consciences. The convention opened with a rules debate -- over Rule 16(c) if I recall correctly. A contemporaneous account by Rick Brookhiser was rerun on National Review Online this week:

At stake was a proposed rule requiring delegates to be bound by the results of the primaries and caucuses that chose them. It was of course the final consummation of the campaign reforms so zealously sought by the party's liberals, and the Carterites insisted righteously on enjoying the spoils of success at the polling booth. In the heat of the moment, Senator Ribicoff even declared "we can't take from a man what he has rightfully won" an outburst that challenged fifty years of Democratic social policy, but never mind. Supporters of the "open" (that is, brokered) conventions were forced into equally contorted postures. By binding the delegates, warned Governor Carey, the Democrats would be forsaking a "tradition of 150 years," and somewhere in Heaven Burke smiled on his newest disciple. Senator McGovern challenged the rule on the grounds that it wasn't democratic enough delegates committed to a previous decision could not carry out the "present convictions of the people." He did not say whether, moved by his own present conviction, he would now retract his vote against allowing the states the same privilege with regard to the ERA.

Carter's forces won the rules fight, and Carter won renomination by a two-to-one margin. At the end of Carter's acceptance speech, the balloon nets opened only partially, unleashing a trickle of falling balloons rather than a spectacular balloon drop. (I was reminded of this watching C-SPAN2's broadcasts this week of acceptance speeches past.) A deflated Democratic party went on to lose the presidency in a landslide and to lose the Senate for the first time in decades.

Carter's renomination wasn't clinched until June, two months before the convention; a month later the "BillyGate" story erupted. Reagan wasn't assured of his nomination that year until May 22nd, when George H. W. Bush dropped out of the race. In 1980, only half the states held primaries. This year John Kerry's nomination was locked up on March 2nd. In 2000, both Al Gore and George W. Bush locked up their nominations by the second week in March. That leaves nearly half a year before the conventions and the general election for the parties to have second throughts -- ranging from buyers' remorse and a vague sense that the presumptive nominee doesn't have what it takes to win, to a scandal that would hound the presumptive nominee out of the race, or in between, possibly the worst situation, revelations that are damaging but insufficient enough to shake a presumptive nominee who is determined to brazen it out. If the candidate won't release his delegates, the parties are stuck, under their current rules.

The potential for disaster seems worse in the Republican Party, where a candidate with tepid support can still manage a slim plurality (maybe only 30% in a five- or six-candidate field) and win all the delegates in early states, leading other candidates to drop out quickly. That's more or less what happened in 1996. The rules of the game kept some good candidates from getting in the race in 1992, as well, despite George H. W. Bush's dropping popularity and apparent lack of fire in the belly for his re-election campaign. (I admit it -- I held my nose and voted for Buchanan in 1992, in hopes of an open convention which would replace Bush 41 with someone who had a chance of winning.) Obviously, fundraising plays a role in a candidate's decision to get in, stay in, or get out of the race, but the delegate selection process is part of the calculation a donor goes through to decide if contributing to a candidate is going to be an investment that could pay off with electoral victory.

The upcoming 2004 Republican National Convention is the only chance to modify the rules for the 2008 delegate selection process. I hope the Rules Committee takes up this issue and gives the convention a chance to debate alternatives.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on August 1, 2004 11:59 PM.

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