Conventional wisdom: The grandest theater in politics

Sometimes the atmosphere at a national convention can be a misleading indicator of the party ticket’s prospects. When the Democrats met in San Francisco in July 1984, they had fresh memories of their bitterly contested 1968, 1972 and 1980 conventions. But this time there seemed to be joyous unity. The Bay Area weather was unseasonably warm and sunny; the convention adjourned at 8 p.m. Pacific, with plenty of time for receptions and dinners at splendid San Francisco restaurants. Events outside the convention hall were beautifully orchestrated by Mayor (and future Senator) Dianne Feinstein and former state Democratic chairman (and future House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi. Big contributors were ably taken care of by the 27-year-old future Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe. You saw a lot more designer clothes and impressive jewels than at Democratic conventions in the old days. The horny-handed machine hacks and porkchoppers were being replaced by the more middle-class representatives of the public-sector unions.

A different trend was apparent when the Republicans convened in Dallas that year. The temperature soared to 106 degrees, with not a cloud in the sky. As you entered the hall, you saw the 65-degree air conditioning send billows of steam out into the open. For the first time Christian conservatives were a massive presence; President Ronald Reagan made his one pre-acceptance speech appearance speaking to a group of them in the giant atrium of Trammell Crow’s Anatole Hotel.

He also appeared from his hotel room on a giant video screen waving to his wife Nancy after she made a brief speech: The crowd loved it. Country music became part of the Republican vocabulary, as the singer Lee Greenwood roused the delegates with his recent hit “God Bless the U.S.A.” Jack Kemp, promoter of supply-side economics and mentor of future vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, told the crowd, to great cheers, that when you tax something, you get less of it. “Prouder. Stronger. Better” read the signs in the hall. While the Democratic Party was becoming more oriented to what demographer Joel Kotkin calls “gentry liberals,” the Republican party had taken on the kind of nationalistic, celebrate-the-common-man tone of the New Deal’s WPA murals.