Cleveland: The ‘showbiz’ convention?

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CLEVELAND — Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, who earlier this year abandoned his own presidential ambitions after dismal performances in Iowa and New Hampshire, said Friday he thinks next week’s Republican National Convention “is going to be largely showbiz.”

The Republican from Richmond was noticeably candid regarding his thoughts on the future of politics and how reality television star and real estate mogul Donald Trump managed to capture the most votes out of a crowded field of GOP candidates. Gilmore, who participated in a panel discussion with USA Today’s Washington bureau chief Susan Page and David Wilhelm, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, also lamented the influence he claims cable news executives have on the democratic process.

“The debates were showbiz, make no mistake about that,” Gilmore said at one point. “The networks decided how the polling was going to be selected as to who was going to get it, and in what order, and whether there was going to be an undercard — all those things, showbiz, and who decided all of that?

“The fact is those decisions were made in the back of smoke-filled rooms by the producers of those networks.”

Gilmore described network honchos as “enormously influential” in the selection process.

“If you take the debates, the primary system and the rise of the political television networks and put that together — I happen to believe that this is a new development in modern political thought in the United States of America.”

Gilmore wasn’t the only panel member to speak candidly about the current state of American politics. Page noted that television networks in particular were noticeably active in covering Trump campaign rallies.

“The tendency of cable television in particular to take Donald Trump rallies and just run them forever gave him an enormous advantage,” Page said. “They did that because he is a rating bonanza. If you tune in to a Donald Trump rally, how can you turn away?

“You never know what he’s going to say next.”

A convention impossible to handicap?

Meanwhile, asked what he expects might happen next week in Cleveland, Wilhelm claimed the convention will be “completely unpredictable.”

“I have no idea what to look for,” he added.

Page, a veteran of 10 previous presidential nominating conventions, agreed.

“This is the least scripted convention in modern times,” she said. “Usually by now we know who is going to speak, when they’re going to speak, the presumptive nominee is going to those people to talk about what they can and cannot say — that’s not happening this time.”

The unpredictable nature of the convention, she said, is a reflection of the road that led to this point.

“If you had said a year ago that Hillary Clinton would not have reached clinching the nomination against Bernie Sanders, the 73-year-old socialist senator from Vermont, that she would still be battling him at the point that Donald Trump had cleared the field of governors and senators on the Republican side, nobody predicted that,” Page noted. “It has been a contest for the record books from the start.”

Gilmore, however, disagreed.

“It may not be scripted the way the Bushes always scripted everything, and I’ve participated in some of that, and that was awful. It was very very carefully scripted,” he said. “This is disorganized somewhat because Trump did not run a classic campaign.

“America has changed and he understood that if you are dynamic enough and you appeal to anger and resentment, which is the dominant emotion in American politics today, and in American society today.”

A chance to reintroduce

For Wilhelm, one of the most important things to watch at next week’s convention — and for the following Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia — is how Trump and Clinton re-introduce themselves to Americans.

He recalled 1992, the year he served as party chairman as former Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton used the convention to reinvent his image.

“We did polling in advance of the convention and we found out that more people knew that he attended Yale than that he grew up in Hope, Arkansas,” Wilhelm pointed out. “That is a classic example of the convention having the ability to reintroduce somebody — in this case, we released the ‘man from Hope’ video.”

Wilhelm said that Trump’s chances to upset Clinton in November could hinge on hinge on how he presents himself next week.

“The events of the last couple weeks may have provided him with more of an opportunity than existed,” Wilhelm said, referencing the unrest that has gripped the country. “There may be more Americans willing to give him that second chance.

“I think the stakes are enormous — the question is will he have the discipline to be able to take advantage of it? If his reintroduction is bizarre and erratic then he will have failed. But if there is something approaching party unity, at least in the convention hall, then it’s an opportunity.”

Clinton meanwhile has a similar opportunity, Wilhelm said.

“She may be the least well-known person in America,” he said. “People go up and down with respect to their opinion about her. It was only a year and a half ago she had a favorability rating of around 60 percent. Now it’s in the low 30s. Well which is it? She has an opportunity to reintroduce herself to the American people and to frame the campaign in a way that benefits her.”

Page said the conventions mark the chance for candidates to introduce themselves to voters who might have tuned out the primaries. She recalled Bill Clinton’s dominant performance at the 1992 Democratic National Convention and the fracturing that reared its head during that year’s Republican National Convention.

“George H.W. Bush was being re-nominated over opposition,” she pointed out. “Pat Buchanan, who was kind of a version of Trump although less successful, gave his famous ‘culture wars’ speech that actually repelled a lot of swing voters.”

“If you look at that it seems to me the Democrats are in a better position to do what they did in 1992 this time while the Republicans are very much at risk of doing what they did in 1992.”

Gilmore countered that it will be hard for Hillary Clinton to convince voters inside of a single convention week that she can be trusted, especially in the aftermath of her State Department investigation.

“The people of the United States have decided today that she’s dishonest by a ratio of two to one,” he said. “That has set-in. So now the question the people of the United States have to ask is, ‘are we going to put a person we’re convinced is dishonest into the White House?’

“And you know what, with Donald Trump, they might, because Donald Trump is a new thing and we’ve never seen anything quite like it before.”

Back to ‘showbiz’

At various points during the discussion, Gilmore appeared to almost speak wistfully as he recalled some of the advice his campaign staff directed his way ahead of the debates and the primaries.

“I talked to one of my consultants last year. He said ‘you don’t understand, Gilmore, politics is showbiz now — it’s not politics, it’s showbiz,’” Gilmore recalled. “I wish it was about policy, I really would like this thing to get around to terrorism and the economy and so on but I don’t think we’re going there today.”

“I really question whether the candidates are being selected by the parties at all.”

He returned to the showbiz theme during the question-and-answer session, when a member of the audience asked him if he was satisfied with the nominating system in place.

“I think it’s a very interesting question we can have nationwide,” he said. “You can start the debate right here if you choose to — as to whether or not we ought to be doing these primaries.

“In the modern age, in which the airwaves are dominating things, you can’t even buy enough advertising to compete with CBS, NBC, MSNBC….and all those agencies that are actually out there telling you plus and minus about the candidates, maybe we ought to be going back to the smoke-filled rooms. Maybe we ought to be saying the people who engage themselves in the political process — and by the way it’s an open process, you don’t have to do anything to join a political party in America but just join — if you care about civic things then maybe the conventions ought to be picking the candidate.”

The discussion, hosted by the City Club of Cleveland, was moderated by John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.