WHAT DO YOU get when you put Warren Beatty, Gary Hart, Tom Hayden and Roseanne
in the same auditorium?
If you're reformed Republican and stellar socialite Arianna Huffington, you
hope this mix of paparazzi pleasers and prodigal pols provides an
issue-oriented alternative to the tightly-scripted, highly exclusive four-day
fun-fest known as the Democratic National Convention.
After playing in Philadelphia to mixed reviews, The Shadow Convention,
Huffington's traveling attraction, opened last night in Los Angeles at
Patriotic Hall, just six blocks from the Staples Center, ground zero for the
As she did in Philadelphia, Huffington began trotting out experts and
personalities to talk about three issues she says neither the Republicans nor
the Democrats have the guts to deal with. Over the next four days, Rep. Jesse
Jackson Jr. is scheduled to talk about poverty, his father, the Rev. Jesse
Jackson, along with Gore Vidal, are set to discuss the failed drug war, and
David Crosby, Granny D and others will make the case for campaign finance
But, as provocative as all that is, there is no getting around a major
question: Why bother with a Shadow Convention?
The answer can best be found in the case of Ariz. Sen. John McCain. No one
symbolized the difference between the Shadow Convention and the party
convention better than McCain, who gave George W. Bush a real run for his
petrodollars in the Republican primaries. McCain thrilled the Philadelphia
Shadow Convention audience with his talk about how politicians like himself are
"beneficiaries of a campaign finance system that is nothing more than an
elaborate influence peddling scheme in which both parties conspire to stay in
office by selling the country to the highest bidder." But he was nearly booed
off when he sang the praises of George W. Bush and the GOP.
At the Republican National Convention, McCain was roundly cheered for his
support of Bush. And on campaign finance, the lifeblood of Dubya's own
ambitions, McCain said bubkes.
So the Shadow does know. Campaign finance reform, a critical issue, was
completely ignored at the official convention. But at least McCain's speech at
the Shadow Convention got the issue some publicity and traction. That's the
whole point of the event - to provide a forum for ideas that are unpopular with
the party at large.
What makes the Shadow Convention successful is also, sadly, what relegates
Huffington's confab to the shadows. Risky concepts - such as limiting the money
that can be spent on elections and legalizing marijuana to reduce the prison
population and the attendant drain on tax dollars - are broached at the Shadow
Convention because so little is on the line in Huffington's arena.
Her convention is not nominating a presidential candidate. The tens of millions
of dollars in funds it takes to mount a national election campaign won't be at
risk at Patriotic Hall, as it will be over at the Staples Center. So Shadow
speakers can say pretty much whatever they want.
With the Democrats, as was the case with the GOP in Philadelphia, the high
stakes mean playing it safe. No time for concepts that might offend big donors
or hurt the nominees.
Huffington, who doesn't have to play it safe, is well aware of this political
algorithm. Which is why, ever the optimist, she says it is her hope that this
will be the last Shadow Convention. "I hope that there is no need for Shadow
Convention in 2004," Huffington told the audience at the opening in
Philadelphia. "I hope that by then, the parties will address these issues."
It would be a wonderful thing if Huffington is right and our money-driven
political system is truly overhauled to the point where the need for funds no
longer cancels out the need for fresh ideas. But it's a real good bet that,
when either George Bush or Al Gore are running for re-election, nobody at
either of their coronating conventions will be making big noises about changing
how they get all their money to run.
Now, I can't say for sure if it'll be Bush or Gore, but I do know this about
2004: No matter who is running, we will need a Shadow Convention just as much
as we do now.
Howard Altman is news editor of Philadelphia City Paper.
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