On Tuesday night, once again, restrictions imposed by the pandemic gave rise to a different – and in some way, more innovative – political convention experience. I spoke with political correspondent Gabriel Debenedetti about the DNC speeches, the Zooms, and that plate of calamari.
Ben: On night two of the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday, we had Jill Biden testifying to Joe Biden’s empathy and humanity; Bill Clinton speaking for a few minutes in a notably reduced role; and much more. But perhaps the most memorable segment was the roll call, which featured a lot of regular Democrats (mixed in with some recognizable politicians) announcing the nomination tallies from their home states, in front of local-flavor backdrops. (A guy holding a plate of calamari in Rhode Island was a particular highlight.) It seemed a vast improvement from the usual roll-call routine, which seems to speak to how necessity has forced some needed innovation to the staid convention format. Am I off base here, or is that also the thinking among people you’ve been talking to?
Gabriel: Yeah, that’s basically right — lots of folks I’ve spoken with seem to want to repeat some version of it in the future. It’s certainly more interesting than just a bunch of people in seats in a really big, dark room. Of course, we’ll see how permanent some of the forced changes become. Even though last night’s programming wasn’t always exactly riveting, Democrats seem to be generally okay-to-positive about how this is all going, and there does indeed seem to be a lot less dead or awkward podium time than usual. I’ve been thinking a lot these days about which conventions of campaigns (and, uh, conventions) will return in an eventual post-COVID world and which will disappear. Will rallies die out? Probably not, but they may transform a bit. But don’t underestimate political insiders’/junkies’/hobbyists’/leaders’ interest in gathering every four years in person. I do think the elevation of real people in their diverse, interesting homes is probably the kind of innovation that’ll stick.
Ben: I, for one, find it more effective than that hoary line you always hear from politicians at these things — some variation of “Like Ted Smith, who works 14 jobs to make ends meet and was just kicked off his health insurance.” It’s better to just hear from the people themselves.
Gabriel: Sure. Now, “real people” do usually speak at conventions. It’s not actually new for parties to showcase them and their stories, as Democrats have been doing since the first minutes of the convention on Monday. But the roll call specifically can be such a drag, and it wasn’t last night. Usually it feels like the kind of thing slotted into the schedule because … Oh, yeah, there are some arcane rules to this convention we have to follow. It absolutely could’ve been that last night if they’d just had a bunch of senators and state party chairs broadcasting from their couches. But it was visually interesting.
Ben: True. I guess there just seem to be more of them this time around. And the (mostly) sharp editing makes things feel less awkward.
Gabriel: Yes, I think that’s right. By the way, the new format hasn’t just allowed the party to showcase the stories of everyday people who’ve been affected somehow by the Trump administration. It’s also made it easier for them to sideline party relics who they feel an obligation to include. Bill Clinton spoke for only 5 minutes last night, which is approximately 120,459 times shorter than his usual speaking slot.
Ben: What else stuck out to you about yesterday’s festivities, if anything?
Gabriel: I think Ady Barkan’s time in the spotlight was especially effective, as it always is when he makes an appearance. And after all the hand-wringing about how little speaking time Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez got, I think her speech was good and made a lot of sense as Sanders’ nomination, though I do agree with the frequently-made point that the party probably would have benefited from showcasing her slightly more. As for the other moments that were clearly supposed to stick out … the Cindy McCain video and Colin Powell speech were both fine, though I noted yesterday that I’d be surprised if the Biden team kept hitting the “former Republicans, come on over” line so hard, and indeed I was. I don’t think there’s much more room for it.
One more thing: it largely came in the Jill Biden portion of the evening — which was a nice introduction to the very relatable potential future first lady, for people who didn’t know her — but I was again struck by how much Joe Biden we saw, given how invisible the nominee usually is for the first nights of the convention. And we got a lot of Joe Biden bio, including going back to his tragic early days in the Senate — a time that’s well-known, of course, but which he’s sometimes inched away from talking about in a political context.
It was all a good reminder that the message of this particular convention seems to be: You should just, generally, feel good about Joe. It’s not about a specific policy or about any one thing Trump is bad at. Just aiming to get people thinking about Biden in a more positive — if sometimes maddeningly vague, thanks to the many strands of messaging — light.
Ben: As you say, we’ve gotten a lot of Biden boosting over the first two days. We’ve also had a very healthy dose of Trump bashing. It seems like they’re presenting the case for their guy and the case against the other guy simultaneously — should we expect more of the same over the next two nights?
Gabriel: I don’t see why not. Seems like a pretty safe space to be in for one’s convention. But I think we’ll probably continue seeing individual speakers assigned to one side of that case or the other, not both, for the most part. Barack Obama may be an exception tonight, of course, but even he doesn’t like talking about Trump much. (Then again, if he’s ever going to do it, now seems like it would be an opportune time …)
Ben: “Let me be clear: Screw this guy.”
Gabriel: “Folks. Trump. He’s bad.”