Virtual Conventions, a Review

L. Ian MacDonald

August 28, 2020


One of the unforeseen outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a new kind of event, the virtual political convention.

As we’ve seen in the last two weeks of August, with the Democratic and Republican conventions in the United States and the Conservative leadership convention in Canada, these are not your grandfather’s conventions.

The essence of political conventions has always been the crowds and the hoopla, the delegates from the heartland and the deal-making in plain view on the floor.

In Canada, in the days of delegated conventions, there was always the question of where the also-rans would go after the first ballot. At the 1968 Liberal convention, the establishment favourite was Pierre Trudeau, with opposing forces coalescing around Bob Winters, leaving John Turner in third place thinking of the “some next time” he said he wasn’t running for that finally came his way in 1984.

At the 1983 Progressive Conservative convention, Michael Wilson met up with Peter Pocklington on the floor and together the two walked to Brian Mulroney’s box, giving him the momentum surge he needed to overcome an incumbent Joe Clark. It was the most dramatic moment in the televised age of Canadian conventions.

In the US, modern conventions have always been about confirming presumptive nominees, the races having been decided during the primaries. The last brokered conventions in the US were held in 1952, when both parties’ nominees — Republican Dwight Eisenhower and Democrat Adlai Stevenson — were chosen by floor votes.

Which now leaves everything riding on convention choreography, and the nominee’s acceptance speech. And in the absence of the former, it has become all about the latter.

Welcome to 2020, and another unforeseen consequence of COVID-19.

It must be said that the Democrats filled the virtual moments with nicely presented video shorts from across America. For example, vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris had her nomination seconded by Dems standing in obscure or famous settings seemingly in every state. The Republicans this week have seen their news cycle interrupted by Black Lives Matter protests following the latest cop killing of a Black man on a city street. This may even have played to Donald Trump’s law-and-order message.

But when it came to the leaders’ speeches, in both the US and Canada, they were more important than ever, because there was nothing else of consequence going on.

Which, more than ever, put the spotlight, and the pressure on the leaders to perform. And on their writers to deliver compelling messages.

Consider the contrast between John F. Kennedy’s famous New Frontier speech of 1960, with Joe Biden’s Democratic acceptance address of 2020.

Kennedy was speaking before a huge crowd at the Los Angeles Coliseum, the main venue of the 1932 Summer Olympics.

His speech lifted the crowd and inspired a new generation of Americans.  “The New Frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises,” he declared, “it is a set of challenges.” It was the defining moment of a new decade, and a new political age.

Biden, on the other hand, spoke in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, before a tiny live audience observing social distancing.

He began by differentiating himself from Donald Trump.

“I will be ally of the light, not the darkness,” Biden said.

His next theme—we shall overcome.

“We can and will overcome this season of darkness in America, he declared. “We will choose hope over fear, facts over fiction, fairness over privilege.”

And he pointedly suggested a ballot question:

“Character is on the ballot. Compassion is on the ballot. Decency, science, democracy. They are all on the ballot.”

Those are, indeed, comparative advantages of Biden over Trump. He is the candidate of decency and dignity, who has earned his way to the top of the ticket after a lifetime of public service and who now, even at 77, is answering the call of country.

Americans could do much worse, and so could America’s friends, none more so than Canada. Seldom more so than this week. when Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro was quoted in a new book criticizing Canada’s military role in Afghanistan where more than 150 Canadians died in the allied mission. And this coming from an American official whose country’s commander-in-chief avoided service in Vietnam by seeking a deferment for bone spurs.

And there was Donald Trump on Thursday night delivering an acceptance address on the South Lawn of the White House, with the famous South Portico in the backdrop of the television shot. In an unprecedented move, the bi-partisan symbol of American democracy was seized for the most partisan purpose, one party’s pitch by its presidential candidate. It was incredibly inappropriate, even by Trump’s standard of no class.

Some 1,500 supporters greeted Trump on the South Lawn. No social distancing there. And finally, his speech, an hour and 10 minutes long.

After his daughter Ivanka Trump introduced him to a refrain of “Four More Years,” Trump surprisingly stayed on message in a rhetorical review of his record, and what he has done for Americans, while Biden “has spent his entire career offshoring their dreams.”

Trump then said he had done more for African Americans “than any president since Lincoln,” adding “I’ve done more for Black Americans in three years than Joe Biden has done in 47 years.”

And on trade, Trump said, “Joe Biden’s agenda is Made in China. My agenda is Made in the USA.” On the pandemic, in which 180,000 Americans have died, he promised a vaccine as soon as it could be discovered and manufactured. And post-pandemic, he promised 10 million new jobs.

And quite unexpectedly Trump raised the polarizing issue of pro-life vs pro-choice. “Tonight we proudly declare that all children, born and unborn, have a God-given right to life.” Where did that come from? A constituency that votes. Just like the pro-gun crowd defends “the right to bear arms” in the US constitution. Altogether he called this a “pro-unifying national agenda,”

In Canada, the Conservatives had their own virtual convention in Ottawa Sunday, in which prime time was lost to a botched vote counting system that delayed the announcement until well past midnight.

For Erin O’Toole, coming from a close second to defeat front-runner Peter MacKay by a decisive 57 to 43 percent on the final ballot, the wait was worth it.

For any junkies and journos who bothered to stay up, O’Toole’s speech was also worth waiting for. Most Canadians, then and later in the week, were seeing him for the first time. It was a strong speech, well delivered in both languages, and a calling card for events going forward.

O’Toole had the very good idea of introducing himself to a country that doesn’t know him.

“I gave my dad a hard time growing up,” he said. “He worked at General Motors for over 30 years, which brought us from Ste. Thérese, Quebec to Bowmanville, Ontario – to my home in the Toronto area.

“After high school I joined the military to gain discipline and to serve the country. It deepened my love for Canada and defines who I am today. I served as a navigator on Sea King helicopters and sailed with our Navy out of Halifax.  It was in Halifax where I met Rebecca, the love of my life.”

It’s a very Canadian story, one of moving up in life. As to a political agenda, he is developing a True Blue message, clearly differentiating from Liberal red or NDP orange, not to forget the Bloc, in the minority House that re-convenes in three weeks.

“We need a leader with real-world experience and someone who is not afraid to make the tough decisions,” he said. “A leader who cares more about keeping Canadians safe and united than about his personal image and the interests of his friends.

“We need a leader who puts Canadians first and will stand up for Canada and our interests in a challenging world where we have lost the respect of our friends and allies. The world still needs more Canada, it just needs less Justin Trudeau.”

It’s the theme of entitlement that eventually brings down Liberal dynasties.

And for those who slept through O’Toole’s speech, he repeated a theme of tolerance on Tuesday at his first meeting with the national press corps.

His core message from the victory speech is certain to be heard many times over:

“Whether you are black, white, brown or from any race or creed, Whether you are LGBT or straight; whether you are an Indigenous Canadian or have joined the Canadian family five weeks ago or five generations ago; whether you are doing well, or barely getting by; whether you worship on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, or not at all — you are an important part of Canada and you have a home in the Conservative Party of Canada.”

That answered fair media and stakeholder questions on inclusivity, where O’Toole needs to be unequivocal. But he held his own, and successfully defined the media conversation.

O’Toole also stands to be the beneficiary of low expectations, which he has already surpassed by winning. He has also shown surprisingly well in the days since.

Stay tuned.

L. Ian MacDonald is Editor and Publisher of Policy magazine.