democratic national convention

Democrats Unveil Virtual-Convention Schedule and Unity Theme

Michelle Obama will again be a featured convention speaker, but not in a hall like this one. Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images

Battling technical complications, possible media indifference, and the many unknowns of the very first virtual national political convention, Democrats have unveiled the prime-time speakers schedule for next week’s event. “Prime Time” is defined as 9 p.m. – 11 p.m. EDT, though major TV-broadcast networks are not planning to cover more than an hour a night. (The DNC will offer streaming video of the whole show). So it’s a good guess that the really big names — including the “keynote speakers” on the first three nights — will appear in the last hour, when media coverage will likely peak. Afternoons and early evenings are being reserved for a variety of virtual-caucus meetings and training sessions, so the usual cast of hundreds of minor elected officials speaking over the buzz of conversation in a half-empty hall with only CSPAN viewers watching will be entirely missing.

The overall theme is “Uniting America,” and the list of speakers makes it clear that Team Biden is focused on both party unity and projecting their candidate as someone who can heal some of the divisions Donald Trump has wallowed in for so long.

Here’s USA Today’s description of the big-name portions of the schedule, beginning with Monday, August 17:

Democrats are using Monday to show support from opposite ends of the of political spectrum with speeches from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a 2016 Republican candidate for president who has been critical of Trump.

Michelle Obama will serve as Monday’s keynote speaker.

Speech topics will reportedly include “the nation’s three crises — the pandemic, the struggling economy and racial injustice.” Aside from Sanders, Kasich, and Michelle Obama, the first-night speakers list includes some big names identified with Democratic views on one or more of the three crises: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo; Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer (a vice-presidential prospect); U.S. Representatives Jim Clyburn, Bennie Thompson, and Gwen Moore (all members of the Congressional Black Caucus); and U.S. Senators Catherine Cortez Masto, Doug Jones, and former Biden-rival Amy Klobuchar.

On Tuesday, the keynote speaker is Jill Biden and the big star is Bill Clinton, famed for his convention stem-winders in the years since his own two nominations. But expect a lot of attention for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who will be expected to beef up the cross-ideological party-unity theme. Chuck Schumer gets a Tuesday speaking slot, as does former acting attorney general Sally Yates and 2004 nominee John Kerry. Tuesday is also the night when we’ll probably get a lot of “real people,” such as health-care providers, teachers, racial-justice advocates, and union stalwarts.

At some point on Tuesday, delegates will remotely nominate Biden and his running mate; the latter will share the spotlight Wednesday night with Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and Elizabeth Warren. Stars aside, other Wednesday speakers are expected to talk about a Biden administration’s plan for post-pandemic economic recovery. They will include Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers; New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham; and former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (the party’s preeminent victim of gun violence).

The show concludes on Thursday night with the usual Sun King focus on the nominee, with former rivals and longtime associates testifying to Joe Biden’s stellar qualities in implicit, if not explicit, contrast to the erratic and cruel narcissist in the White House:

Thursday’s theme is “America’s Promise.” Speakers will cast Biden as a man of character, decency, compassion and resilience – “a fighter” who gets back up. The night will lean into Biden’s biography and his long record in Washington. 

Biden’s vanquished foes — Kamala Harris (if she’s not the veep), Pete Buttigieg, and Cory Booker — will precede Uncle Joe’s acceptance speech, along with probable veep might-have-beens Tammy Baldwin, Tammy Duckworth, and Keisha Lance Bottoms.

Some observers looking through the schedule have noticed that there is no mention of Susan Rice and wondered if it might be a tipoff that she’s the veep, but it’s clear the schedule was put together long before anyone other than Biden himself — and perhaps even Biden himself — knew the identity of his running mate. It’s likely an oversight.

As the New York Times reports, convention planners have really struggled with formatting issues since the evaporation of the traditional venue, audience, and atmospherics:

For viewers at home, the usual tableau of cheering delegates and supersize balloon drops will be replaced by green screens and about three dozen politicians speaking remotely over satellite feeds that — if the event coordinators are lucky — don’t freeze, drop audio or disintegrate into pixels as millions of Americans look on from the isolation of their homes….

To add more visual pizazz for viewers, Democratic officials have encouraged their remote speakers to set up cameras in symbolic and visually interesting locations, rather than drab Zoom backgrounds, like bookcases and spare rooms, that are common to cable talk shows.

The Times reports that at least one major speech, from Michelle Obama, is being pre-recorded entirely:

The address by Mrs. Obama, who officials believe could attract the widest viewership of the week aside from Mr. Biden, was being filmed this week at her family’s vacation house on Martha’s Vineyard, in part to ensure that the first night ends on an emphatic — and technologically predictable — high note, according to several people with direct knowledge of the situation.

Mrs. Obama has told friends that she views the speech as her major contribution to the 2020 race. But the decision to tape her address in advance is likely to rankle network executives already grappling with a warped version of what is typically one of the biggest television moments of an election year.

In other words, the media folk being relied on to convey the Democratic message to the electorate are worried that the convention will be more of an infomercial than a news event. But in truth, national political conventions have been drifting in this direction for many years, with genuine spontaneity at a minimum. COVID-19 has completed the transition, and now we all have to decide if this TV show is worth watching.

Democrats Unveil Virtual Convention Schedule and Unity Theme