The brave new post-COVID convention world

The brave new post-COVID convention world
© Screenshots of Democratic Convention / Getty Images

These virtual political conventions have made the traditional confabs, balloon drops, silly hats and special interest bashes, obsolete.

Those in-person conventions, however, had important virtues: elected and party officials and political activists from all over the diverse country assembling to offer an agenda and nominate a standard bearer. If dentists, accountants and journalists find value in periodic gatherings, why not the women and men who play a prominent role in our lives, taxes, health care, education, war?

The hope, probably forlorn, would be to mix the strengths of this year's forums, more direct and disciplined, with those before, real interactions that provided a sense of real politics.


Let's not romanticize the past. The educational value of conventions — too much infomercials even before virtual — is exaggerated. So is the notion of a make-or-break forum for future leaders, starting with the famous Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe Memo: The Obamas unbound, on race Obamas' first White House dog, Bo, dies Census results show White House doubling down on failure MORE speech at the 2004 convention. That convention did introduce a political rock star — but for anyone that good, there'd have been another venue. Conversely, Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonNever underestimate Joe Biden Joe Biden demonstrates public health approach will solve America's ills McAuliffe rising again in Virginia MORE bombed at the 1988 convention; four years later, he was elected president.

But in-person conventions can reveal a lot about the country and the election. In 1992, the right-wing anger — irrational — at George H.W. Bush was palpable in Houston. Four years ago in Philadelphia, the Bernie bros tried to shout down John Allen, a decorated four star Marine General and former NATO commander who was endorsing Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMcConnell: Taliban could take over Afghanistan by 'the end of the year' Hillary Clinton: There must be a 'global reckoning' with disinformation Pelosi's archbishop calls for Communion to be withheld from public figures supporting abortion rights MORE. I was talking to California delegates when one pointed to Gray Davis, asking, “Why the hell is he here?” Davis was the former Governor of the state.

This year's Democrats and Republicans seem more united, though the depth is hard to gauge virtually.

While there hasn't been a multi-ballot convention since 1952, there have been seminal moments in the 23 conventions that I've covered. The 1976 Republican convention nominees weren't settled until the first night when President Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan waged a ferocious battle over the rules; it was instructive to watch the best operatives, like Pennsylvania's Drew Lewis, who later became a successful Transportation Secretary.

Four years later saw the weekend drama of Reagan and Ford hammering out the crazy notion of a co-presidency. I forever will owe then party chair Bill Brock, who gave me a 20-minute heads-up the dream ticket was dead; it saved the Wall Street Journal several hundred thousand papers with an embarrassing story.


Conventions usually don't materially change the general election dynamics. Exceptions were 1972, when George McGovern gave his acceptance speech after 2:30 a.m., George H.W. Bush in 1988 and Bill Clinton in 1992.

Some elements of virtual and in-person conventions are indistinguishable: Both are largely infomercials, as much entertainment as politics.

For the Democrats last week, authenticity worked: the Biden grandchildren, the 95-year-old World War II veteran, basketball star Steph Curry and his adorable family and Brayden Harrington, the 13-year-old New Hampshire boy who Biden counseled on overcoming a stutter.

Republicans illustrated the differences in speaking to a virtual audience. The cool and measured passion of South Carolinians Nikki HaleyNikki HaleyPollster Frank Luntz: 'I would bet on' Trump being 2024 GOP nominee DNC gathers opposition research on over 20 potential GOP presidential candidates Will DeSantis, Rubio and Scott torch each other to vault from Florida to the White House? MORE and Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottUpdating the aging infrastructure in Historically Black Colleges and Universities McConnell amid Trump criticism: 'I'm looking forward, not backward' The instructive popularity of Biden's 'New Deal' for the middle class MORE and First Lady Melania TrumpMelania TrumpJill Biden a key figure in push to pitch White House plans Petition calls for Jill Biden to undo Trump-era changes to White House Rose Garden Fox News's Bret Baier posts vaccination selfie MORE worked. Conversely, Donald TrumpDonald TrumpThe Memo: The Obamas unbound, on race Iran says onus is on US to rejoin nuclear deal on third anniversary of withdrawal Assaults on Roe v Wade increasing MORE, Jr., and his girlfriend, Kimberly GuilfoyleKimberly GuilfoyleThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - GOP draws line on taxes; nation braces for Chauvin verdict Guilfoyle named as national chair of Greitens' Senate campaign in Missouri Trump Jr., Kimberly Guilfoyle buy M house near Mar-a-Lago MORE were snarling, playing to a non-existent big hall. Michael Sheehan, the political and corporate speech expert, told me: “(Guilfoyle) appeared like the crazy lady yelling at you on the Metro.”

There was superficial schmaltz too. I'm a fan of Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Kerry Washington — her new film/documentary, The Fight, is a must see — and they're naturals for the Oscars. Rep. Val DemingsValdez (Val) Venita DemingsThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Upbeat jobs data, relaxed COVID-19 restrictions offer rosier US picture Democrats cool on Crist's latest bid for Florida governor Florida Democrats' midterm fantasy faceoff: DeSantis vs. Demings MORE (D-Fla.) and Sen. Tammy DuckworthLadda (Tammy) Tammy DuckworthIf you want Julie Su at the DOL, don't point to her resume Su's track record make her an excellent pick for Labor Department post Senate passes bipartisan B water infrastructure bill MORE (D-Ill.) would be better at a political convention. The best was Sen. Cory BookerCory BookerBush testifies before Congress about racist treatment Black birthing people face during childbirth, pregnancy Tim Scott sparks buzz in crowded field of White House hopefuls Never underestimate Joe Biden MORE (D-N.J.) masterfully emceeing a virtual chat with a half dozen other candidates Joe BidenJoe BidenDefense lawyers for alleged Capitol rioters to get tours of U.S. Capitol Sasse to introduce legislation giving new hires signing bonuses after negative jobs report Three questions about Biden's conservation goals MORE defeated in the primaries.

For the Republicans, Trump's awkward White House sessions with freed captives, COVID-19 workers, new citizens and a televised pardon of an ex-con looked just as contrived as they were. Empathy is not a Trump trait. Neither are propriety, using the White House and Jerusalem as political props, or taste.

In 2024 and beyond, with a more adult Republican leader, it would be good to meld the two types: virtual and in-person. In-person conventions, as Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDefense lawyers for alleged Capitol rioters to get tours of U.S. Capitol Gaetz, Greene tout push to oust Cheney: 'Maybe we're the leaders' Free Speech Inc.: The Democratic Party finds a new but shaky faith in corporate free speech MORE (D-Calif.) notes, provide important "collaborative" experiences. I still hear from delegates I met at conventions three or four decades ago. More importantly, so do political participants.

They should be publicly financed — no more lobbyists and big companies at fancy restaurants to wine and dine politicians — three-day events, perhaps a long weekend as Rep. Jim ClyburnJames (Jim) Enos ClyburnSunday shows preview: Coronavirus dominates as White House continues to push vaccination effort Bottom line Clyburn: US must 'get rid of these racist pockets' MORE (D-S.C.) suggests. During the day and early evenings, they can thrash out rules and policy agendas, swap ideas. Then an hour of prime time each night as they choose to use it.

Ideally, the first night, roll out the platform — the agenda — for discussion, if necessary a debate; maybe the second evening features a keynoter and a few stars of future (The Democrats’ 17 rising stars was a bomb), and the final evening the ticket, always the most important.

This may be the only time a presidential candidate can make an unmediated presentation; that's the way it has been and always should be.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.