The brave new post-COVID convention world
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 Obama 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 Clinton 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 Clinton. 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 Haley and Tim Scott and First Lady Melania Trump worked. Conversely, Donald Trump, Jr., and his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle 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 Demings (D-Fla.) and Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) would be better at a political convention. The best was Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) masterfully emceeing a virtual chat with a half dozen other candidates Joe Biden 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 Pelosi (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 Clyburn (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.