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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

“Keynotes” and Other Convention Ghosts

As a student of, and frequent worker-bee at, national party conventions, I’m a bit amused by the small controversy aroused by Mark Warner’s selection as “keynote speaker” for the upcoming Democratic gathering in Denver. In part, I suppose, because of the deserved fame of Barack Obama’s “keynote address” in 2004, Warner’s selection to deliver a featured Tuesday night speech is being kicked around as a sign of Warner’s presidential future, or as a good or a bad thing depending on your opinion of the Virginian’s oratorical skills and messaging.
That’s all well and good, but does the “keynote” designation really mean as much as it used to?
Traditionally, when conventions were actually deliberative in nature, the “keynote” address, invariably held on the first night of the event, was a brief, guaranteed moment of rousing party unity before delegates moved on to more potentially divisive discussions revolving around rules, platform planks, and candidates. It was the one time you could be sure that the convention was focused outward, towards the hated partisan enemy, rather than inward, toward the party’s own issues.
Nowadays, there can be multiple keynote addresses (there were officially three at the 1992 Democratic convention) or none at all (as in the 2000 GOP convention). They can occur at almost any juncture, and the tone of the keynote isn’t necessarily different from that of any other convention speech. Obama’s 2004 effort, for example, certainly wasn’t the slash-and-burn partisan diatribe of keynotes past.
“Keynote addresses” aren’t the only anachronistic features of contemporary party conventions, of course. The central moment in every convention, the presidential “acceptance speech,” was once (prior to 1932, when FDR became the first major-party nominee to actually appear at the convention) delivered offsite, weeks and even months after the formal nomination was made. Going back even further, the “acceptance” was traditionally a published letter rather than a speech, which sometimes made “acceptance” conditional on rejection of certain planks in the party platform (most famously George B. McClellan’s rejection of the Civil War “peace plank” in the 1864 Democratic platform).
None of this history matters a great deal, other than to remind us that the structure and terminology of national party conventions remain haunted by the ghosts of conventions long past. That’s even true of the central organizing principle of conventions: the idea that they should primarily consist of speeches–increasingly redundant in this era of message discipline and centralized vetting–by hundreds of politicians.
I’ll have more to say about that in an upcoming New Republic piece on the future of conventions. But no no one should hyperventilate over the selection of a particular speaker to deliver a particular “address.”

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