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Virtual conventions should be the new norm

Lorraine Ali on why the DNC’s virtual convention should become the norm.

The question of how to formally nominate a president and vice president during a pandemic has been answered.

Throw an unconventional convention, as the Democrats did this week for former Vice President Joe Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris. Invite celebrities to host, then pepper the proceedings with testimonials from real folks, career politicians and NBA stars alike. Soldier through the perils of both live TV and video conferencing, namely pixelated computer camera interviews, ungainly moments of dead air, awkward missed cues and frozen smiles. Never mind that it may look more like a telethon, Zoom meeting or YouTube concert than an election-year function. It’s 2020. The world’s on fire. Do the best you can.

But a funny thing happened on the way to unmitigated political disaster. This week’s Democratic National Convention was more engaging than any of these quadrennial rituals has been in ages.

If there’s an upside to the pandemic — other than dining moving outdoors — it’s that both parties have had to rethink how they address the American electorate. And let’s hope they never go back to the way it was, even when it’s safe to convene again.

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The Republicans will have the chance to put their spin on Washington’s newest tradition when they launch their own convention to nominate President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence on Monday, but the DNC led the way in showing that best way to appeal to a changing landscape is to change with it.

Conceived under duress, the four-night event worked because it was forced to deviate from political theater as usual. Its organizers turned a critical function of our democracy into a made-for-TV spectacle, and as blasphemous as it may sound, it was simply more compelling to watch than the fusty, arena-bound version that rolls around every four years.

The “virtual” convention pushed the Beltway to embrace the 21st century, and cater to its changing demographics, in all sorts of exciting and uncomfortable ways.

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Originally scheduled to be held last month at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, the DNC was moved to August and downsized to the city’s Wisconsin Center as part of the party’s coronavirus-adjusted plan for the festivities. The new venue became a control center for the convention’s mix of prerecorded segments and live broadcasts, most of which were piped in remotely from across the U.S. And each night’s programming was two hours long, significantly shorter than conventions of yore. The truncated proceedings were a gift when one considers how difficult it is to focus on anything these days. Watching an endless procession of speakers take the same stage to harp on how broken things are sounds about as appetizing as bobbing for apples in a community bucket at a crowded fair.

Balloon drops don’t pack the wow factor they once did. And let’s face it: Both parties were scrambling to connect long before COVID-19 demanded social distancing. No one should ever have to see Clint Eastwood converse with an empty chair again.

Cozzie Watkins announces the nominating votes for presumptive presidential candidate Joe Biden for the state of North Carolina. (Associated Press)

This week’s convention was a mix of high- and low-tech, taped testimonials from ex-presidents, political activists and musical performers that included Jennifer Hudson and an odd-couple duet by “Pose” star Billy Porter and rock icon Stephen Stills. Yet some of the best moments were watching people like you and me reacting to speeches from former First Lady Michelle Obama or Sen. Bernie Sanders from their living room sofas.…

Lorraine Ali

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