The first completely digital Democratic National Convention in American history kicked off Monday night, gifting CNN and MSNBC viewers two hours of the Democratic message, and CNN, MSNBC, and Fox viewers with all or much of the second hour. Designed to be part concert, part political commercial, and part digital pep rally, the evening contained easily recognized aspects of a normal rally as well as some surprising imagery for a 2020 Democratic Convention, but above all fell flat, coming across as both dour and canned, and suffering greatly from the absence of a boisterous crowd.
Politicians giving speeches peppered with regular people and flanked by flags are a familiar sight at any convention. Monday was no different, featuring defeated presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar, prominent endorser Jim Clyburn, and well-known Govs. Andrew Cuomo and Gretchen Whitmer, peppered with filler characters. The first hour led up to a party-unity plea from Joe Biden’s ideological opponent, rockstar Bernie Sanders, a call to leave the GOP and support Biden from defeated Never Trumper John Kasich, and a closing speech from party-royal Michelle Obama.
The imagery from minute one was unexpected, however, in how strongly it veered from the base and media messaging dominant over the past few years, choosing instead to make a direct appeal to moderates, conservative Democrats, and disaffected Republicans.
After years of open attacks on the once Democratic white working-class, years of party leaders growing steadily more comfortable mocking, interrogating and attacking Christians, and after months of riots, assaults on the Founders, America-was-never-great speeches, and national anthem protests, the convention went another direction, kicking off with the preamble to the Constitution, then airing the Pledge of Allegiance. After this, a child sang the opening verse of “America The Beautiful,” leading into a stirring, red- white- and blue-colored rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.” The opener concluded with a Christian prayer from a pastor, and both the programming and pre-show featured Martin Luther King Jr’s call for a color-blind future where all men are treated equally.
From start to finish, day one openly courted dismayed Republicans, featuring Republican John Kasich in a far more prominent role than activist hero Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is slated to get (much to the scorn of those activists), and including a number of former Trump supporters who pledged to switch their vote to support Biden this time round.
The Republican Party just switched to a digital convention short weeks ago, sparking weeks of headlines on their panicked rush to catch up. Those expecting months of careful planning and unlimited Hollywood connections would lead to a spectacular Democratic Convention, however, were left disappointed.
The show fell flat without a cheering, booing, laughing, and jeering audience of party faithful. Dramatic and moving stories lost out to a “Hollywood Squares” effect, political speeches fell victim to the curse of the State of the Union response, and even the concerts missed the mark, as when hours after the East Coast sun went down, a sunlit Maine politician on a beach introduced a singer to lull audiences into an acoustic coma with a song about being lost in Europe while her all-white outfit fluttered in the winds of the Atlantic.
There were a few minor technical missteps, as there are with even the most seasoned live telethons, and it’s likely the digital nature is more to blame for the failure of the pretaped aspects than the content. Go the classic route, as Whitmer did, and you look like the worst of political TV (including an overly sensitive mic), but go full-Hollywood and you end up on the beach in a suit.
If you took a drink every time a field of grain rolled across jumbotrons at a normal convention, you’d be as drunk as the the attendees are, but Kasich speaking from a field of gold, for example, came across more like an attempt at a Sting music video shot by a drone than a moving convention speech.
Beyond the difficulties of the venue, and aside from an uplifting opening, the evening’s messaging was overwhelmingly dour. It’s common for the out-of-power party to give voice to those struggling and losing under the incumbent, and committees are always thrilled to showcase party defectors (sometimes leading to amazing moments), but without an adoring stadium, President Donald Trump loomed large as ever in speakers’ minds, and frequently highlighted death-by-coronavirus hardly changed the mood to a winning message.
While Michelle Obama’s 20-minute closer will undoubtedly receive glowing reviews from her fanboys in the corporate press, its dramatic whispering and theatrical near-tears pleading for a better America are hardly the bang effective pep rallies typically end with, and generally summed up the delivery of the convention’s first night.
“It doesn’t feel anything like it has in the past,” Politico’s began its Monday morning newsletter preview. “There are no throngs of delegates, party faithful, press and hangers-on streaming into Milwaukee, where Democrats were supposed to gather this week to officially pick their next leader. Instead, we’re all still scattered across the country, stuck in our homes watching the whole bizarre spectacle on screens between 9 and 11 each night.”
It’s likely this is the reality both parties will have to deal with for 2020’s political conventions, and it’s a fate Trump was desperate to avoid (and is this week circling the country for mini-rallies to stave off). It’s possible in the next three days the Democratic Convention will pull up, deliver a great show, and excite the activists to support Joe nearly as strongly as they oppose the president. But with months of planning going into a largely lackluster first-night opener, don’t count on it.