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Conventions have two purposes that don't go together

Conventions have been repurposed for pageantry. But delegates still need to do the party's business.

Former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, along with other delegates from Virginia, chant for a roll call vote on the first day of the Republican National Convention on July 18, 2016.
Former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, along with other delegates from Virginia, chant for a roll call vote on the first day of the Republican National Convention on July 18, 2016.
John Moore/Getty Images

CLEVELAND — The dustup during the first day of the Republican National Convention yesterday over a roll call on the rules has been buried by all the attention to Melania Trump's seeming plagiarism of her convention speech. But the fight, and its overshadowing, highlights something important about conventions.

Party conventions have to play two roles, and those roles don't always work well with each other.

On the one hand, as everyone will tell you, the convention is about pageantry. It's about unity. If you had a nickel for every time someone called a party's convention an "infomercial," you could pay for a very large wall.

But at the same time, the convention is about the party doing party business. Party officials need to set the rules for how the party will do everything from allocating delegates to states to encouraging open or closed primaries. The convention is the gathering to do that.

The fight on the floor yesterday was about both of these things. Conservatives wanted an opportunity to free delegates to vote against Donald Trump. They also wanted to encourage closed primaries, and they tried to get rules changes that would encourage that for 2020. And they wanted a symbolic display of dissatisfaction with Donald Trump as nominee.

Meanwhile, the Trump camp and RNC leaders wanted to avoid any kind of sign of disunity. It can be argued that Trump supporters should have even been in favor of the reforms, but the pageantry won out.

This created problems for the party. Parties need a place to make rules, to adjust to new realities. But such deliberation can be messy and show fractures. The slow evolution of presidential nomination process didn't create a pageant. It hijacked the convention for that purpose. (It also hijacked state caucuses and conventions.) And along the way, it's undermined the other missions of the convention.

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