Friday, August 21, 2020

What Did the Convention Accomplish?

Perhaps on some entertainment-culture calculation, it made some sense to have the star of VEEP host the convention's final night. She did, after all, play a Vice President, and the star of the convention was once a real Vice President. However, her tasteless jokes were as out of character with that real Vice President as her TV Vice president had been with him and his office. Other than that unfortunate lapse, however, the 2020 First-Ever Virtual Democratic Convention can only be classified as a magnificent success.

Conventions ceased doing what they were created to do in the 1970s. and have since turned into televised commercials for their candidates and parties - not a bad thing, per se, just a different thing. Even so the traditional trappings of cheering crowds and partisan conviviality were still seen as part of the experience. Thanks to the pandemic, the party was forced to be creative and come up with something new. It was obviously a bit artificial at times - candidates instinctively waving even when there was nobody there, speeches without obvious applause lines because there was no one to cheer, etc. Still it worked - and actually worked rather well.

Besides making the case to elect Biden and eject Trump, the convention's main task was to project a unified party. It had not done so - or at least not so well - in 2016. Then, of course, it was still possible for real delegates to disrupt the pre-planned flow in real time. That, of course, is no longer possible. That, combined with a realistic recognition of what is at stake and the harm done to the party by its internal divisions four years ago, led to a successful projection of party unity, with those who had earlier run against Joe Biden obligingly - and seemingly sincerely -endorsing him at every possible opportunity.

A successful campaign creates a contrast. The convention certainly did that. Throughout the four nights we heard how well liked Joe Biden is by those (many) who actually know him, what a good guy he is, how well formed his character has been by his faith, how he bounced back and pressed onward after tragedy and loss - all the sorts of things that no one could conceivably say (at least not with a straight face) about his opponent. There was plenty of policy talk, as there should be, and the incumbent president's policy failures were on display throughout. But the emphasis was on character, on the kind of person the presidency requires, and how Joe Biden meets that standard.

One of the advantages of this virtual format is that, while "ordinary" people didn't get to applaud and cheer much, more of them got to speak than usual. And it was possible to showcase people from all over, including people not particularly politically involved but who actual know the candidate and could testify credibly to his virtues, even as other "ordinary" people could testify to the sufferings they have endured thanks to the incumbent president and his party.

Biden's speech itself was perfectly pitched to this moment. No rousing oratory, which is not his strong point anyway, but rather a deeply personal, serious, straight talk about the dangers that need to be faced, and some sense of how he will face them (unsurprisingly very different from how his opponent has done so, or rather failed to do so). Voters care, of course, about what he will do as president, but they care as much about who he will be and how he will be as president - especially in light of recent experience. It is that fundamentally moral dimension of the American presidency which Biden instinctively understands and which Trump has never grasped at all

The party's nominee is usually introduced by another prominent politician or sometimes in recent years by a family member. We heard form plenty of both. But having 13-year old Brayden Harrington share with the world how Joe Biden had helped him deal with his stuttering was absolutely brilliant. Nothing could have better illustrated the complete character contrast between the two opposing candidates.

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