Starting today in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (sort of), the Democratic Party National Convention will begin. Republicans will follow next Monday with the GOP convention being broadcast from North Carolina. Both parties are holding virtual conventions in response to the pandemic, with only those party officials and necessary delegates coming together in person. Such unconventional conventions should be an opportunity to transform what they have become into something better.
National conventions have devolved into three-day infomercials for political parties, complete with 1-800 numbers on the screen for viewers to donate to the cause. Convention speakers are now chosen by their ability to deliver red-meat applause lines and divisive takedowns of the other party. With no raucous audience to cheer and jeer, this year’s speeches may be a little flat. Hopefully it will cause the orators to focus less on what they are against and force them to articulate what they are for.
Most convention speeches and speakers are forgotten before the balloons drop on the party’s nominee. A few have captured the imagination of the nation because they elevated the conversation, expanded shared vision and reminded Americans of the principles that unite the nation.
In 2004, a young state senator from Illinois spoke at the Democratic Convention. He didn’t mention or attack incumbent president George W. Bush, once. He powerfully told the nation that, “There are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.”
That state senator, Barack Obama would return to that convention four years later as the Democratic nominee for president.
In the 2012 Republican convention, a small-town mayor took to the national stage for a short but inspiring message to the nation. In describing her childhood as the daughter of immigrant parents, she said, “The America I came to know was centered in personal responsibility and filled with the American dream.
“The America I know is grounded in the determination found in patriots and pioneers, in small business owners with big ideas, in the farmers who work in the beauty of our landscape, in our heroic military and Olympians. It’s in every child who looks at the seemingly impossible and says, ‘I can do that.’ That is the America I know!”
That mayor from Saratoga Springs, Utah, Mia Love, would two years later become a member of Congress.
President Obama and Rep. Love showed what a convention speech can do for the country. The American people are exhausted by the nonstop negative chatter being served up by both political parties and reinforced by national media outlets.
This is not to say that important issues, policy difference and governing philosophies cannot be discussed. Each political party should, of course, discuss their big ideas, grand plans and what the future would hold under their leadership. America is at its best when it discusses and debates principles and policies in the marketplace of ideas in front of the American people. That is what a convention should be about. The last thing America needs right now is 97 references to President Trump’s tweets or 63 jabs at Joe Biden’s gaffes.
With COVID-19 looming large over the nation along with economic uncertainty and racial unrest, surely the two major political parties could pause from the traditional three-day beatdown and deliver messages of hope and healing. That may not be conventional convention wisdom by political consultant standards, but we believe it would be wise and good for the soul of the nation.