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On the Issues, Only The Shadow Knows
Published on Monday, August 14, 2000 in Newsday
On the Issues, Only The Shadow Knows
by Howard Altman
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 Democratic Party.

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 reform.

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.

Copyright Newsday, Inc


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