First, the obvious part. Here is Russ Feingold speaking, not at the convention itself but a few blocks and about a million cops uptown at Arianna Huffington’s shadow convention: “What we are seeing on television are not really party conventions, where representative delegates come to confer and choose. Rather, these are basically now corporate trade shows for the delegates, while the main show is behind closed doors at big-dollar, soft-money fundraisers, and those soft-money contributions, make no mistake, are setting the agenda for the American Congress and for the United States as a whole.”
The thrust of Feingold’s argument is unarguable, but its bluntness obscures important nuances. The televised convention was just one of many taking place simultaneously. Each is important, though rarely for the reasons discussed in public.
Of course, the money convention is of paramount importance, and in this regard the two parties are, per Ralph Nader, indistinguishable. The Democrats may even be a little worse. To be a member of the Republican Regents, a fat-cat or corporate contributor need only pony up a measly $250,000 in unregulated cash. Admission to the Democrats’ Chairman’s Club will set you back twice that much. What’s more, the Democrats have even worse taste, if that’s possible. Sure, there’s a lot of polyester and argyle at a Trent Lott golf tournament, but at the $500,000 Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Mardi Gras fundraiser, partygoers were reportedly greeted by the sight of Louisiana Senator John Breaux dressed in a fluorescent orange jumpsuit imitating James Brown, wearing a washboard and playing spoons onstage. I say “reportedly” because The Nation does not pay me enough to witness John Breaux in a fluorescent orange jumpsuit imitating James Brown.
Much of the media’s convention coverage was pretty good. Reports of the garish Breaux fundraiser noted that each of the sponsoring companies and trade industries had a specific interest in Breaux’s Medicare reform legislation or one of the bills before his various committees. Most noted that the contributions were tax-deductible and hence partially funded by you and me. They dutifully quoted Breaux insisting that corporations are just plain stupid. While they happily give their shareholders’ money away, “They don’t get any special treatment.” All that legislation that could mean billions to each of the companies and industries in question is nothing more than a happy coincidence. In fact, you or I might consider asking, say, Bristol-Myers Squibb or the American Gas Association for a few hundred grand to throw our next party. Anyway, as FEC member Bradley Smith argues on the Wall Street Journal editorial page, “Studies indicate that private contributions play little or no role in determining legislative behavior.” My own studies also indicate that you can’t believe a damn thing you read on the Wall Street Journal editorial page.
The media’s convention was also covered extensively, though much of it focused on party invitations and celebrity sightings. One reason for this is that journalists do not generally earn like lawyers but imagine they could have. They therefore tend to obsess about tiny distinctions in status. Party invitations to places like the Playboy Mansion, the West Wing set and Spago represent not only free food and liquor but a kind of existential reassurance of one’s place in the universe. As with teenage boys and sex, nary a journalistic conversation took place in LA that did not, eventually, make its way to party plans.