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NJ Daily / CONVENTIONS 2012

A Convention Bump for Congress? Forget About It

The Capitol from the east front on July 9, 2012.(Michael Catalini)

photo of Matthew Cooper
August 26, 2012

If history is any guide, the Romney-Ryan ticket should get a bounce out of the convention. Republicans in Congress? Not so much. And they really need some love.

Congress has about a 10 percent approval rating, depending on which poll you peruse, and when you break it down by party it’s not much better. Republicans in Congress have garnered public support on some issues—repealing “Obamacare,” building the Keystone XL pipeline—but they haven’t been able to win over the public just yet on things like revamping Medicare or keeping income-tax rates the same for wealthier earners. (See the United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll at nationaljournal.com/congressional-connection.) In other words, this week’s sopping-wet shindig in Tampa is great for Mitt and Paul, not so much for Mitch and John.

Life’s unfair. These may be presidential nominating conventions, but they are also party conventions. Yet Congress doesn’t benefit much from them. Sure, congressional bigwigs will get some prime-time love as opposed to the lonely C-SPAN stints in the afternoon: Senators getting airtime include John McCain, John Thune, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Kelly Ayotte, and even a bit for Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. But they’re onstage to make the case for Romney—not to say what an awesome job they’re doing and why Harry Reid is Satan’s spawn. And they’re not getting the biggest speaking roles. Those are going to governors and other folks who don’t know the joys of riding the congressional subway.

 

There’s scarcely any House presence during those coveted hours, unless you count Rep. Paul Ryan, who’s there as the veep candidate, not as a House member. Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers gets a pre-primetime speech and so does Mia Love, a House candidate from Utah, who is vying to be the first black Republican woman in Congress. John Boehner will speak. But none has a big role, such as delivering the keynote speech (New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie gets the honor).

What about those irascible House freshmen? They’re scheduled as daytime acts. That might make sense for Romney, but does it help the frosh who need to make their case if they want to hang on to their hard-fought gains?

At least in the old days, Congress had more to do at the conventions. When these quadrennial confabs changed from real fora to infomercials, Congress’s role was minimized. After all, its members made up a large percentage of the delegates who actually came to a convention to produce a nominee. (The last presidential nominee who was chosen after more than one ballot was Adlai Stevenson in 1952—a lifetime ago, when Florida was the 20th-most-populous state instead of the fourth.)

Of course, some individual members of Congress can use conventions to catapult their career. Former Rep. Susan Molinari’s address to the 1996 Republican convention in San Diego got a nice pop, especially with funny lines like “Americans know that Bill Clinton’s promises have the life span of a Big Mac on Air Force One.” Phil Gramm gave a good keynote in 1992 for George H.W. Bush’s nomination, and it helped propel his run for president four years later. (He lost to Bob Dole.)

But Gramm had a telling line in his speech: “Did you notice that at their convention in New York, the Democrats hid their congressional leaders? Poor Speaker Tom Foley and Majority Leader George Mitchell were hidden so far back in the crowd that you had to press your nose right up against the TV screen and get out a magnifying glass to see them.”

Although it’s better this time, it’s still a presidential show. No wonder Congress is considering a bill to withdraw federal funding from the conventions. It’s a way to trim the deficit a teeny bit. But it also reflects Congress’s diminishing role at the event.

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