The Democratic Party convention ended yesterday and, despite the challenges of its “virtual” format, it has proven to be surprisingly effective.
No one was sure what to expect from this virtual convention, whose sanitized format contrasted with the large 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 avoided the kind of rhetoric that sometimes makes events like this even more soporific. Importantly, 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 replayed 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 since 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 of the left wing of the party, which consisted of a few minutes of interventions around the presentation of 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, one understands 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 shown widely.
The crossroads for Republican John Kasich
The ex-Republican governor of Ohio was tipped to be a possible contender for his party’s nomination in the event that he succeeded in breaking free from the grip of Trumpism. His appearance at the Democratic convention signaled for him the end of these aspirations and it required real political courage. He sought to convince the Trump-disillusioned Republican electorate that this election represents a crossroads for their party’s future. We will therefore discuss for a long time his choice of decor: literally, a crossroads.
Will Republican voters who today profess their allegiance to Biden fail him at the last minute, as they did with Hillary Clinton? Given the strategic position that Biden’s campaign gave them and the ex-vice president’s reputation as a peacemaker, one might think not.
The ex-president’s wife is one of the most universally popular figures in the United States of all parties. His speech, carefully written and delivered with passion (transcript), aimed to join a crucial group in this election: voters disconnected and disillusioned with politics, who are fed up with the pranks of the current president but who prefer to win rather than to take the trouble to register on the electoral rolls and to travel to be heard.
His 18-minute speech would undoubtedly have been much longer in front of an audience who had repeatedly interrupted him to express their approval. The goal of the intervention, however, was not to impress, but to be able to communicate intimately with those voters (and especially those voters) who are reluctant to engage. In this sense, it is not impossible that reruns of the speech or of certain excerpts actually achieve this goal.
Testimonial from an Amtrak employee
One of the goals of a convention is to define the candidate positively in a way that is stronger than opponents. This is clearly seen in this short video of Amtrak Railroad workers who rubbed shoulders with Joe Biden during the many years he commuted 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 you the taste to go and discover many places and especially to go and enjoy a dish of squid in Rhode Island.
The Clintons give way
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 one 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 no more and no 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 is. 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 had not been 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 will 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 display and the character at the antipodes represented by Donald Trump. One will speak for a long time, among other things, of the relationship Biden has with several young people struggling with stuttering, such as Brayden Harrington, who has delivered 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 should be remembered that Republicans base much of their criticism of Biden on the claim that Biden is unable to utter a full sentence without sputtering. On the contrary, his speech was delivered with aplomb and practically without fail. Difficult to base on this performance to affirm that Biden is a finished politician (the text and the video of the speech of Biden are here).
Obviously, Biden did not live up to all expectations. One would have expected his speech to give some specific elements of his economic stimulus plan to raise the country from the current crisis, but, for that, we will have to wait a little longer. Now is the turn of the Republicans to put on their big show next week. We will come back to that.