The last time Philadelphia hosted a Democratic National Convention, the baseball A’s were still playing in Shibe Park, the culinary fare ran the gamut from cheesesteaks to pretzels…and the Democrats were tearing themselves apart.
That was 1948. Hotel rooms were so scarce that some convention folks stayed in frat houses at the University of Pennsylvania; lucky hotel guests had to pay the ungodly rate of $12 a night. The TV technology was so primitive – this was the first televised Democratic convention – that the conventioneers had to navigate the thick cables snaking across the floor, and sweat for hours beneath the blazing TV lights. There was no air conditioning, because the party had deemed it too expensive. And when the party approved a civil rights plank, racist southern delegates staged a walkout.
On all fronts, things should go a lot more smoothly in 2016.
Clearly, the current Democratic decision-makers chose Philadelphia primarily for logistical reasons – doable security perimeters, sufficient hotels, ease of transport between hotels and the Wells Fargo Center, walkability from many hotels to the Philadelphia Convention Center (where many events will be held). But for a party that’s likely to nominate Hillary Clinton, the messaging opportunities and political optics far surpass what Brooklyn or Columbus, Ohio could have offered.
The first female presidential nominee in history, standing in front of Independence Hall – where the Founding Fathers created the nation? No-brainer.
Philadelphia even wooed the Democrats with a Hillary-centric slogan: “Let’s Make History Again.” Granted, the founders who convened at 6th and Chestnut could never have imagined a woman at the nation’s helm, and rougish Benjamin Franklin (whose penny-festooned gravesite is two blocks away), treated women mainly as playmates. But will Democratic speechwriters be able to wrap Hillary in the flag, and link her ascent to timeless American values? Piece of cake.
Once the logistics are vetted, it’s all about sending a message. Last time around, Democrats chose Charlotte, North Carolina in part because they wanted to advertise southern outreach. (OK, that didn’t work out too well; North Carolina was the only swing state to reject President Obama.) Back in 2000, Republicans chose Philadelphia in part because they wanted to advertise northern outreach and project a moderate image. (OK, that didn’t work out too well; candidate George W. Bush lost nearly every northeastern state, including Pennsylvania.)
But wait, sometimes the symbolism works. The GOP put its ’04 convention in New York City so that Bush could leverage 9/11 for his tough-on-terror message. Democrats did ’08 in Denver, in part to put them in tune with the increasingly diverse demographics (more Millenials and Latinos) of an increasingly swing region.
Pennsylvania is arguably no longer a swing state – it hasn’t voted Republican in a presidential race since 1988 – and Hillary is strong here already, having waxed Obama in the ’08 primary with heavy support from the white blue-collar voters that Democrats always covet. But there’s only an upside to featuring the Liberty Bell (America’s Blarney Stone), and the bronzed founders at the National Constitution Center (which had yet to be built when the Republicans came to town).
And even in the unlikely event that Hillary gets trumped by another insurgent, it’s doubtful that the Democrats will be as fractured as they were in ’48 Philadelphia. Lots of liberals deserted President Harry Truman and formed a Progressive Party (which also held its subsequent convention in Philadelphia); lots of southern racists, led by Strom Thurmond, deserted Truman and formed the Dixiecrat Party. But maybe the most embarrassing thing was the pigeons.
Directly below the convention lectern, there was a huge floral Liberty Bell. The convention planners had placed white pigeons – officially dubbed “peace doves” – inside the floral bell. The deal was that when Truman came to the lectern for his acceptance speech, the pigeons would be freed for a celebratory flight. But it was so hot in the hall (remember, no AC) that some of the pigeons turned out to be dead. The rest of them flew toward the TV lights, didn’t like the lights, and careened toward the pols on the podium. One landed on the head of the Speaker of the House…
Yeah. The ’16 Democrats will surely do better than that.