As We See It

[Vegas on My Mind]

Las Vegas’ bid for the 2016 GOP convention is a sign of desperation, not strength

View with a room: Would a Republican National Convention here be a boon—or a bad sign?
J. Scott Applewhite, AP

The swagger is gone. The losses have mounted. A reboot is necessary—and soon.

The Republican Party? Sure. But, also, Las Vegas.

Make no mistake: The Vegas bid for the 2016 Republican National Convention has the stench of desperation. It’s the once-coolest kid in school realizing looks and athletic prowess alone aren’t cutting it. It’s time to ask the ugly girl if she wants to dance—and pray to God she agrees.

Sure, times have gotten better. I just saw housing values are up a 1990s-esque 25 percent in Nevada, leading the nation. That sounds familiar, but it’s not, is it? Values were so dizzyingly bloodied that even lifting a few meager inches off the mat looks good, mathematically anyway. Unemployment and foreclosure rates have dropped significantly, and yet they still top the nation. Just because misery is somewhat less acute doesn’t mean happy days are here again.

And so an idea that used to be laughed at becomes a possible panacea. One of the people who laughed the hardest—Sheldon Adelson, the man who invented the mega-convention business—is firmly on board. He’d be doing it for prestige, not the dough, but even his nemeses must be grateful he’d drop tens of millions out of pocket to have his new best friends in for the most awesomest nerd summer camp ever.

It’s worthwhile to remember, though, why this idea was laughed at in the first place. Back in our heyday, the Vegas venues capable of hosting a national political convention—basically, the Las Vegas Convention Center and maybe the Sands Expo—were packed year-round. There were modest gaps here and there, but the monthlong lockdown that has traditionally been required by the Secret Service would have wiped out millions of dollars in profit and ground a measurable sector of the economy to a halt.

It was also significantly off-brand for Vegas. The era of “What Happens Here Stays Here” was about adult fun, about sizzling bodies meandering around expensive pool cabanas, about never having to say sorry for going wild. Major awards shows accomplish that. Reality TV accomplishes that. Movies with bachelors, roofies and Mike Tyson accomplish that. Abortion-hating, premarital sex-hating, gay-hating Republicans kinda don’t.

But even if it were the much-more-fun Democrats, how, exactly, does hosting a four-day TV show starring unattractive, self-important middle-agers droning on about health care and ethanol subsidies enhance Vegas?

Sure, boring conventions happen all the time here. But nobody races to get the networks to cover them live. The only time mainstream America hears about any of our expos or meetings is when they involve hot new technology, beauty pageant contestants, porn or, perhaps, animals.

Much is being made of how the Republican National Committee is now toying with the idea of a July convention, a quieter span for convention business in Vegas than the August time frame of quadrennials past. That provided good initial cover for Vegas to say, “Oh, alright, we’ll think about it.” But in the cha-ching years, that wouldn’t have been enough. It just wasn’t seen as a big enough piece of business or aligned with the destination’s goals.

To that end, the Vegas gods best be careful what they wish for here. The 15,000 journalists flooding the Strip for the RNC will be looking for seedy, not shiny. They’ll look at Las Vegas not as some post-modern urban utopia but as a microcosm of every social ill that comes up in the 2016 campaign. The close-up won’t be so much fun when our schools, our immigration problems, our never-opened Strip behemoths and our jails become the focus of an onslaught of international media coverage.

There was something delicious to me about Vegas’ past disinterest in owning the national political stage. Nevada already earns its share of notice because of its swing-state status and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s high profile, so it had no bearing on our political stature or power. But while Kansas City and Tampa and Charlotte and Minneapolis were so needy for national attention and legitimacy that they’d let a political party violate them in every conceivable manner, it was nice that Vegas didn’t have to play that way.

It is a measure of just how far we’ve fallen that we’re game now.

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Newsweek and USA Today, among many other outlets.
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