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The Pandemic Could Make Political Conventions Less Terrible

President Trump announced on Thursday that, in deference to the pandemic, he was canceling the portion of the Republican National Committee’s nominating convention scheduled to take place in Jacksonville, Fla., late next month.

“We won’t do a big, crowded convention, per se — it’s not the right time for that,” the president said during his daily coronavirus briefing, noting that he “felt it was wrong” to have hordes of people heading into “a hot spot.” Mr. Trump added he’d told his advisers, “There’s nothing more important in our country than keeping our people safe.”

Better late than never.

Mr. Trump’s coronation party originally was planned for Charlotte, N.C., which is where much of the convention’s official business will still take place. In June, however, the president relocated all the flashy bits, including his acceptance speech, to Florida, after North Carolina officials refused to guarantee him the overcrowded, non-socially distanced spectacle he wanted.

Florida, however, is now in the throes of a Covid-19 spike. The state reported on Thursday 10,249 new cases and 173 deaths, a record. Bringing thousands of conventiongoers into the mix would have been a recipe for more tragic outcomes.

Instead of an arena full of cheering fans, Mr. Trump must content himself with “tele-rallies,” other virtual events and maybe some smaller gatherings. This is surely a bitter pill for the president, who draws energy from large, adoring crowds. But this moment of crisis also provides his party — both parties, for that matter — with an opportunity to reimagine and reshape their conventions into something more engaging and possibly more relevant to the American public.

The convention of conventions is overdue for an overhaul. Why not make necessity the mother of reinvention?

Much of what goes on at national conventions is not meant for consumption by the general public. Once upon a time, serious nominating business was conducted at these gatherings, but those days are gone. And for all the quadrennial chatter about the possibility of a brokered convention, the parties knock themselves out to avoid that kind of drama, even in cycles with ugly primaries.

Nowadays, conventions are in large part extended reunions, awash in booze, food, music and elbow rubbing between elected officials, lobbyists, activists, operatives, celebrities, fund-raisers, journalists and other players. They are, in some ways, politics at its swampiest.

The parts produced for at-home viewers are dominated by speeches — many of them boring, vapid or even frightening, with an eye toward whipping up the party faithful. The lineups typically feature political stars, up-and-comers the party wants to spotlight (Barack Obama in 2004, Bill Clinton in 1988) and members of Congress. Former primary rivals often appear as a show of party unity, and members of the nominee’s family are trotted out. Then there are the celebrities brought in for a dash of pizazz, like Meryl Streep, and Katy Perry. (Such appearances don’t always go over as planned, as when Clint Eastwood conducted a muchmocked chat with an empty chair at the 2012 Republican convention.)

There has got to be a better way.

As it happens, Democrats have been working on this issue for some time, having realized several weeks ago that they needed to shift to a largely virtual gathering. The fine-tuning is still in progress, but some details are available. Airtime will be slashed and the speaking lineup shortened, Joe Solmonese, the chief executive of this year’s convention, told the editorial board. “We want to be concise and respect people’s time.”

The proceedings will also be more geographically dispersed. Delegates and public officials aren’t gathering in the host city of Milwaukee. Joe Biden will deliver his speech from there, and his vice-presidential pick will be on site for part of the week. But many speakers will be scattered across battleground states and other meaningful locales, based on each evening’s theme.

“We’re going to be very much grounded in the moment we’re in,” said Mr. Solmonese. “So when it comes time to talk about education and the tough decisions parents will make about their kids going back to school, we’re going to go to the places those conversations are happening.” The same holds for the public health responders dealing with Covid-19 and the small businesses fighting for survival, he said, noting that having to think beyond the convention location “creates an opportunity for us to go where we think there are important stories to be told.”

With a nod to social distancing, the stage will feature a multiscreen Zoom layout on which political V.I.P.s and regular Americans will participate in a remote roll call vote. Dreamers and union members and activists will chime in from “iconic or message-based locations in 57 states and territories across America,” according to an internal party memo obtained by The Daily Beast. These will include the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., the site of the Bloody Sunday civil rights clash in 1965.

Using resonant locations and nonfamous faces to spotlight important issues is a smart move. Message: This election is not about partisan games or insiders’ egos. It is about the nation’s collective future.

As for the themes conveyed, anything that focuses on comforting and healing the nation is likely to play well in these unsettling times — and speaks to Mr. Biden’s particular brand. For nonincumbents, conventions are about introducing the nominee to voters. There will, of course, be gauzy videos telling Mr. Biden’s life story. Cutting down on the speechifying and focusing on real people’s stories is also less likely to put viewers to sleep.

The Republicans and Mr. Trump are facing a slightly different challenge — with significantly less time to adapt. At this point, most Americans already have a clear view of the president. He will not be introducing himself to the nation so much as he will be attempting to rebrand himself.

With his polls numbers slipping, it’s clear Mr. Trump needs a retool. For starters, he could drop the self-pitying talk about how unfair everyone has been to him and make a positive case for why he deserves to be re-elected. Central to this: He needs to articulate his vision and priorities for a second term. The president has been asked this question repeatedly of late, and he has consistently failed to offer a coherent answer. A (virtual) convention celebrating his renomination seems the obvious place to correct that.

Pageantry and celebrities have their place. Who doesn’t love a good balloon drop? But this year, the entire nation is under enormous strain. Americans want to know that the presidential contenders understand and care about their problems — and, more than that, that they are focused intently on how to solve those problems.


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