vision 2020

Democrats Struggle to Accommodate Stars at Shrunken Convention

There won’t be any live crowds or pols lined up at a podium in this year’s conventions. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

As a worker bee in the script and speech operation at six Democratic National Conventions from 1988 through 2008, I had a good opportunity to see how lists of convention speakers traditionally came together. It was basically a matter of matching insatiable demand to a very flexible supply of speaking slots. There were certain obligatory positions on the schedule, aside from acceptance speeches by the presidential and vice-presidential nominees: a keynote speaker (or sometimes multiple keynote speakers), there to serve up a red-meat appetizer; past presidents and past presidential nominees; defeated presidential-primary rivals (in years without a presidential incumbent); the party’s congressional leaders and big-state governors; and representatives of major party caucuses, factions and allies (e.g., union leaders), and validating friends, family, or associates of the nominee. In recent years, there has been steadily mounting pressure to break up the tedium of pols speaking from behind a podium by featuring “real people” (viewer-friendly, nonpolitical heroes, or in some cases just representative schmoes) and/or videos.

The exact distribution of speaking slots followed a perceived hierarchy of speakers with the big stars being featured in late-evening “super prime time” (which broadcast networks were expected to cover); lesser stars shining in the somewhat longer prime time (covered by multiple cable networks); and then a vast and ever-expanding timeline of afternoon and early evening non-prime-time offerings covered only by C-Span (or perhaps local TV affiliates covering favorite sons and daughters). Occasionally the schedule (which would typically expand even after the convention began) would get so crowded that the official keeper of the schedule would emerge from her or his lair and announce: “Cut everybody by a minute” (meaning the non-prime-time hordes), creating havoc for speakers and speechwriters alike. The whole show was held together and kept on message by the requirement of teleprompters and convention-supervised rehearsals, not to mention the implicit threat that anyone wandering off script or off schedule would never see a convention podium again.

Among the many things radically affected by COVID-19, the national political conventions are pretty far down the list of priorities. But this year’s largely (or in the case of Democrats, completely) virtual conventions, expected to command greatly reduced media attention, haven’t been easy to plan. Republicans have the benefit of a presidential Sun King who can make scheduling and format decisions no one is about to second-guess. The “out” party, on the other hand, is dealing with some sharp elbows and unhappy campers as the schedule comes together, as Politico reports:

Bernie Sanders and John Kasich will share a night in the spotlight, and both Clintons are slated to have prominent speaking roles at the all-virtual Democratic National Convention in less than two weeks, multiple people familiar with the plans told POLITICO.

Others who’ve been tapped for coveted speaking slots during an event that’s been shrunk down to eight prime-time hours over four nights are Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Jill Biden. And it goes without saying that the party’s two most popular figures, Barack and Michelle Obama, will be featured prominently …

It is unclear whether Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the first-term lawmaker beloved by progressives — and demonized by the MAGA-verse — will speak. Other prominent Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, will have roles. But given the time constraints — two hours of programming each night from August 17-20 — the Biden campaign is making some ruthless cuts. Some high-profile Democrats do not yet have confirmed roles.

Team Biden’s endless veepstakes process has created its own special problems; do all the spurned pols on the vetting list get the consolation prize of a featured convention speech? And if so, who gets bumped? There’s just not as much time on the schedule to be spread around.

And then there are the technical and formatting issues:

Both Clintons are expected to deliver their remarks live from their home in Chappaqua, N.Y., where they have had a studio, similar to Biden’s modest basement setup, since April.

The Clintons will face the same unusual pandemic-related challenges as their fellow speakers. Is it safe to bring in tech teams to set up satellites and cameras? Will living rooms and home office studios look sufficiently august on TV? Perhaps, most important, how will speakers make up for the loss of a live crowd?

If there’s anything more potentially boring than a series of pols speaking from behind a podium in some arena, it’s a series of pols mouthing party pieties straight to camera without the ritual roars of a crowd.

There are some offsetting advantages of the new normal, to be sure. One of the more embarrassing features of recent conventions involved afternoon sessions where speaker after speaker struggled to achieve eloquence against the backdrop buzz of conversations among delegates, alternates, media types, guests, and technical people on the floor. When the crowd wasn’t too noisy, it was too sparse. And the sheer number of speakers under the pre-pandemic dispensation often turned message discipline into message bondage as pol after pol said virtually the same words.

Perhaps the diminished nature of the conventions will reduce the savagery of competition for speaking slots, and make any missteps that occur fade quickly from memory as the candidate debates and other general-election events take center stage. For convention veterans, though, this year’s events are going to feel unnatural.

Democrats Struggle to Feature Stars at Shrunken Convention