Conventions were upended but still told a story
Published September 3, 2020
By Gary Pearce
Covid has upended our schools, our jobs, our lives and, of course, our politics. Now the pandemic has upended that great political tradition – part circus, part TV infomercial and part democracy: the national party conventions.
There were no stem-winding, barn-burning orations to packed arenas. No standing ovations. No staged or spontaneous floor demonstrations.
No disastrous belly-flops that turn a lackluster speaker into a late-night punching bag. No delegates wearing donkey hats or elephant earrings. No floor fights. No fistfights.
Still, both the Democratic and Republican conventions were about the eternal essence of politics: telling a story.
That’s not “story” in the sense of “lies.” It’s about crafting a narrative that appeals to the American people. It’s telling a story about the nominees, about the times we live in and about our hopes and fears.
The party that tells the best story – with the most appealing characters, the best sense of the voters’ mood and the most compelling plot – is generally the party that prevails in November.
Franklin D. Roosevelt said Americans in a Depression needed a new deal. John F. Kennedy said a new generation of leadership was needed to face a New Frontier and get America moving again. Ronald Reagan said government was the problem and we needed to “make America great again.” (Yes, he coined the phrase.)
Politics is more like a novel than a political science textbook, more a Netflix drama than a PBS documentary. Campaigns are about character, not just issues.
Most political stories come straight from the Bible. First there was the Garden of Eden, where we all lived in paradise (when our party was in charge.) Then paradise was invaded by the snake (our opponent). But take heart; there is hope for salvation (our candidate).
This year, the Democrats’ story is that the country faces dark times because of President Trump. Joe Biden has been through dark times in his life, and he knows how to bring back hope, love and light to the nation.
The Republicans’ story is that Democrats would bring about social and economic disaster. They tried to soften Trump’s image on race, women’s issues and criminal justice reform.
Democrats focused on Covid. Republicans focused on law and order.
Some traditions were lost in the conventions.
There was little chance of a new face electrifying the convention and putting himself or herself on a trajectory toward the Presidency, like JFK in 1956 or Barack Obama in 2004.
This year, speakers didn’t have to do the hardest thing in politics: give a speech that works for both 10,000-plus people in an arena and for a national television audience. They had to do the second-hardest thing: speak directly to camera with little or no audience.
Biden gave a carefully crafted 25-minute speech designed to show he has the energy and faculties to be President. Even Fox News pundits said he pulled it off.
Trump gave a 70-minute speech to a mask-free crowd at the White House. As violence raged across the country, he said Biden’s election would cause violence across the country.
Both parties tried to preserve some convention hoopla. Biden gave his acceptance speech to a largely empty room, but he closed the convention by walking with Kamala Harris and their spouses outside to view fireworks with a socially distanced drive-in crowd.
The Republicans were largely shut out of two convention cities, Charlotte and Jacksonville. So they staged a controversial partisan rally on the White House grounds.
The story lines are set. Now we await the next act: the debates.