The Democratic Party convention ended yesterday and, despite the challenges of its “virtual” format, it proved surprisingly effective.
No one was sure what to expect from this virtual convention, whose sanitized format contrasted with the big festive gatherings of the past. Two hours of video clips, mostly pre-recorded, are no substitute for the good old format of political convention in an arena full of hot-blooded supporters. There were even some downright boring moments in those four evenings of prime-time TV that may have made some viewers look elsewhere.
The formula nevertheless had some merits. Notably, it allowed Democratic strategists to better control the message by carefully planning the succession of vignettes and speeches. Also, it made it possible to avoid the kind of rhetoric that sometimes makes this kind of event even more soporific. Above all, in the age of social media, this convention has sent out a multitude of small, easy-to-share video clips that are sure to be rebroadcast millions of times and will reverberate the message in small doses to a huge audience.
I picked up a few highlights, which probably won’t be the same as other commentators, but each have their own message about the campaign.
The Democratic Party is casting a wide net
The choice of speakers drew its fair share of criticism and, as the Democratic Party is a constellation of extremely diverse groups, it was inevitable that some would complain of being less represented than others.
Of particular note was the limited role reserved for the left wing of the party, which consisted of a few minutes of interventions around the presentation of the runner-up, Bernie Sanders. For example, progressive star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was content with a 90-second screen time. If we compare the modest appearance of this rising star who pierces the screen to the long and boring speech of Michael Bloomberg, who spoke before Biden, we understand the frustration of some progressives.
We also reserved a little more time for Republicans who wanted to express their willingness to cross the partisan barrier to support a Democrat. These video clips were very effective and will deserve to be widely re-broadcast.
The crossroads for Republican John Kasich
The former Ohio Republican governor was touted as a possible contender for his party’s inauguration in the event that he managed to break free from the grip of Trumpism. Her appearance at the Democratic convention signaled to him the end of those aspirations, and she called for real political courage. He sought to convince the disillusioned Republican electorate of Trump that this election represents a crossroads for their party’s future. So we will discuss for a long time his choice of scenery: literally, a crossroads.
Will Republican voters who profess their allegiance to Biden today fail him at the last minute, as they did for Hillary Clinton? Given the strategic place reserved for them by Biden’s campaign and the former vice-president’s reputation as a conciliator, one might be inclined to believe not.
The ex-president’s wife is one of the most universally popular figures in the United States of all parties. His intervention, written with care and delivered with passion (retranscription), aimed to join a crucial group in this election: voters disconnected and disillusioned with politics, who are fed up with the jokes of the current president but who prefer to drop out rather than bother to register on the lists elections and travel to be heard.
His 18-minute speech would arguably have been much longer in front of an audience that repeatedly interrupted him to express their approval. The goal of the intervention was not however to impress, but to get to communicate intimately with these voters (and especially these voters) who hesitate to get involved. In this sense, it is not impossible that the reruns of the speech or of certain excerpts actually achieve this goal.
Testimonial from an Amtrak employee
One of the objectives of a convention is to define the candidate positively in a stronger way than the opponents will manage to do. This is clearly seen in this short video of Amtrak Railroad workers who worked with Joe Biden during the many years he traveled between Wilmington, Delaware and Washington to sit in the Senate daily. This moment and several others hammered home an obvious fact: In stark contrast to the current president, Joe Biden is a man close to ordinary people and basically decent.
Around the country
Usually, the official state-by-state vote count is a quintessential soporific moment of conventions, as each head of delegation reports the results by reciting a few platitudes about their state. This time, we were treated to a remarkable tour of the country that frankly gave the taste to go and discover many places and especially to go and taste a dish of squid in Rhode Island.
The Clintons give way to the forefront
Bill Clinton has attended every Democratic convention since he burst onto the political scene as a young governor of Arkansas in 1980. His longest speech, in 2012, was 48 minutes long. This time around, the man who has been dubbed “the chief explainer” took five minutes to deliver a scathing critique of the Trump administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As for Hillary Clinton, her speech will undoubtedly not be retained as a highlight. We will probably retain only one line, as untranslatable as it is effective: “This can’t be another coulda, woulda, shoulda election.”
A stern warning from Barack Obama
Barack Obama’s speech on Wednesday evening was eagerly awaited. He delivered a ruthless plea against Donald Trump, saying that a reappointment would represent neither more nor less than the end of the American democratic ideal. There would be much more to say about this speech in which Obama once again demonstrated his immense oratory talent. If his wife seemed to invite us to an intimate discussion between friends, on the other hand, the ex-president spoke rather of an undeniable position of authority to convince his audience that the hour is serious and that the threat which strain on democratic institutions, represented by Trump, is very real. The entire speech is worth hearing and reading (see here), but the following excerpt sums it up well: “This administration has shown that it is ready to demolish our democracy if that is what it takes to win.”
Introducing Kamala Harris
Wednesday night belonged to Kamala Harris, and her presentation was well put together, after a heartfelt stint on the role of women, minority groups, and immigrant citizens in American democracy. The story of her origins and her political rise is a strong point of this candidate which was fairly well captured by the presentation that was made of her. However, Montrealers would no doubt have wished that his time with us as a teenager was not completely obliterated from this story.
Joe Biden’s presentation and speech
There is a lot more to say about Joe Biden’s presentation and acceptance speech, but I’ll just mention three points here. First, the Democratic convention will undoubtedly have succeeded in effectively presenting the contrast between humanity and the empathy that Joe Biden can demonstrate and the character at the antipodes represented by Donald Trump. We will talk for a long time, among other things, of the relationship Biden has with several young people struggling with stuttering, such as Brayden Harrington, who gave a poignant testimony about the help Biden gave him. We will remember, in contrast, the episode where Donald Trump made fun, on stage, of the handicap of a journalist who had criticized him.
Second, it is worth remembering that Republicans base much of their criticism of Biden on the claim that the latter is unable to utter a full sentence without sputtering. On the contrary, his speech was delivered with aplomb and practically without fail. Hard to base this performance on to say that Biden is a finished politician (the text and video of Biden’s speech are here).
Obviously, Biden didn’t live up to all expectations. We could have expected his speech to give some specific elements of his economic recovery plan to raise the country from the current crisis, but, for that, we will have to wait a little longer. Now it’s the Republicans’ turn to put on their big show next week. We will come back to that.