I had been afraid that COVID would kill the political speech, an institution already weakened with some chronic underlying conditions.
For decades now, political ads have become the main messaging vehicle for candidates running for statewide or national office, making fundraising a candidate’s most important job, not the ability to move and inspire a crowd.
And televised debates have supplanted the stump speech as the spectacle that grabs voters’ attention in the final stretch of the campaign when they are making up their minds. But memorized one-minute responses on crowded stages are no substitute for a sustained argument. Candidates get points in a debate for delivering a devastating zinger, but there’s never really enough time to articulate a policy goal – let alone a strategy to achieve it.
Until this year, party conventions were one of the last places where a well-written and well-delivered address really mattered. But I worried that COVID had taken away even that by eliminating the audience, robbing the speaker of the energy that comes from a crowd of people with one shared focus.
And then Joe Biden stepped up to a lectern in an almost empty hotel ballroom Thursday night and gave the speech of his life – a speech that only he could have delivered, one that met the circumstances of the moment with a forward-looking policy agenda informed by 77 years of life and loss.
“America’s history tells us that it has been in our darkest moments that we’ve made our greatest progress. That we’ve found the light.” Biden said. “And in this dark moment, I believe we are poised to make great progress again. That we can find the light once more.”
It’s easy to write off convention speeches as an empty ritual, but they are important. When Barry Goldwater excommunicated liberal Republicans from the party in his 1964 address (“Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. And … moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”), the world changed.
He lost that election in a landslide, winning only five states in the old Confederacy (because of his opposition to the Civil Rights Act) and his home state of Arizona. But he put his brand of conservatism in charge of a Republican Party that won five out of the next six presidential elections. The hard-right Republican Party with a lock on the white South is still with us today.
Barack Obama’s keynote address in 2004 didn’t tip the election for John Kerry, but it organized the Democrats around a hopeful vision of shared prosperity in a diverse society: “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America – there is the United States of America!” Obama’s nomination four years later and his eight years in the White House are impossible to imagine without that speech.
We don’t vote on policy agendas in this country, we vote for people. But once they are elected, leaders need coordinated effort to carry out their ideas. TV ads won’t tell you how a candidate will be able to direct the effort of many individuals toward a common goal the way a speech can.
Elected officials, especially presidents and governors, don’t debate in the course of their normal duties. But they do have to give speeches sometimes to set the government’s direction, and it’s nice to know whether they can do it.
There were a couple of other effective speakers for the Democrats in the no-live-audience convention last week, and they were both named Obama.
But the most important speech was delivered by Biden.
He set the stakes for the election offering America a clear contrast to Donald Trump and his vision of what it means to “win” in a country faced by a four-headed monster – the worst pandemic in a century, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, intolerable racial injustice and an accelerating climate disaster.
“America is at an inflection point. A time of real peril, but of extraordinary possibilities,” Biden said. “This is a life-changing election that will determine America’s future for a very long time. Character is on the ballot. Compassion is on the ballot. Decency, science, democracy. They are all on the ballot. Who we are as a nation. What we stand for. And, most importantly, who we want to be.”
History will give us the answers to those questions. But for now, oh man, that was a good speech.