Traditionally speaking, the Republican national convention would look like a near-total debacle. In the era of television, major-party conventions have become tightly choreographed displays of party unity, bland speeches hailing the nominee, and almost entirely forgotten by everyone except the delegates after the usual polling bump recedes. By that measure, the GOP’s four-day event in Cleveland was a debacle: floor fights, a vanquished primary candidate telling the world from a prime-time main stage speaking slot that he didn’t support the nominee, and a plagiarism scandal that went on at least a day longer than necessary thanks to attempts to rationalize it away.
By any traditional measure, it was a trainwreck, and a wide opening to Democrats to offer a contrast with a traditionally predictable convention in response. Eugene Robinson made that case today in his Washington Post column:
Requirements for a successful convention next week in Philadelphia are modest. First, the Democrats need to display real party unity rather than the simulated kind; voters will be able to tell the difference. To that end, the speech by Bernie Sanders on Monday night will be tremendously important. If he goes all in for Clinton — and shows some enthusiasm about it — the Democratic Party’s built-in demographic and electoral college advantages will be able to kick in.
Beyond that, the convention needs to portray Clinton as a human being, rather than the grotesque caricature painted by Republicans; draw a contrast between her vast experience and Trump’s dangerous ignorance; demonstrate that she was enlightened, rather than annoyed, by the issues Sanders raised; and paint a positive vision of the nation’s future.
It is not, frankly, that high a bar. If Democrats can’t make Philadelphia better than Cleveland, they don’t deserve to win.
In past cycles, this would certainly be true. Others in the media center pondered the same question — could Democrats score big by just eliminating drama and producing a forgettable show? Traditionally, that would be the safe bet.
This has not been a traditional cycle, however, and voters have not rewarded traditional campaigns. If they had, Hillary Clinton wouldn’t have needed to go to nearly the final contest in the primary to clinch her nomination over a 74-year-old Senate backbencher who spent most of his life as a political crank rather than anyone taken seriously as a leader. Needless to say, voters in a traditional framework would never have given Donald Trump the nomination. And yet, here we are, and that does say something about what comes next.
Many have struggled to understand what exactly has voters acting outside of traditional bounds in 2016. One big reason is that voters felt disenfranchised and disengaged from the political process, not because of their own fault but because they believed the parties didn’t engage them at all. Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders engaged voters in not just non-traditional ways but in messy ways, entertaining ways, and seemed far more authentic than the pre-programmed offerings that traditional politics had produced.
If that’s the case, then it puts the GOP convention in a different light. It was messy, aired dirty laundry, and provided its own fireworks without having a fake Greek colonnade built in a stadium. The convention became a reality show — engaging people in the same manner as a soap opera or The Apprentice might do. The GOP convention became relevant because it became real. And if that’s the case, then the pre-packaged display of what could be called fauxnity that Robinson prescribes might indeed be the worst possible prescription for Democrats.
Now, whether that would be a good or bad development if true is certainly debatable. But I suspect that the traditional instincts of politicians and pundits might end up being proven wrong again in this cycle by the end of next week.