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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Conventions and debates are about to stray more from earlier models

Milwaukee is the host city for next week's

Milwaukee is the host city for next week's Democratic National Convention, but the events largely will be virtual because of the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: AFP via Getty Images / Bryan R. Smith

The coronavirus will transform the upcoming national party conventions, obviously. "Gathering" online could convey an eerie feel, although at least the parties won't try to emulate Major League Baseball by displaying cardboard cutouts of delegates. Local businesses will be among the known casualties of the pandemic in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where Democrats will base their official business next week, as they will in Charlotte, North Carolina, where Republicans will be headquartered the following week.

Luckily for former Vice President Joe Biden, talk of a brokered convention died as it usually does with the end of the primary season, as his rivals fell in behind him. The basic purpose of the convention, to nominate a national ticket and adopt platforms, should remain intact. They've been scripted for television audiences for a long time, the productions and speeches ceremonial — different from the days in the last century of suspense, multiple ballots and arm-twisting.

The intensity and face-to-face confrontations, state delegation breakfasts, guest meet-and-greets and lobbying on all kinds of issues will be lost. People can scream at each other and then make up over the phone or by Zoom, no doubt. But the real thing offers telling, spontaneous, raw information to observers and participants that a virtual "event" cannot. Can nominating speeches be the same without a packed room? Will candidates get the same post-convention "lift"?

Now that Biden has selected Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) as his running mate, the suspense should be over for a while on the Democratic side.

For his part, President Donald Trump can only look back wistfully on the angry "lock her up" chants encouraged by former aide Michael Flynn at the 2016 GOP convention. Trump's insistence on supportive crowds this year led to a change of locale to Florida for his big acceptance speech, which had to be canceled due to a pandemic spread that he all but denied would happen. Both alternative sites under discussion, the White House and Gettysburg, also are symbolically dissonant.

Either way, the parley cannot be as much fun, if only because Trump and the GOP have everything to lose this time.

The presidential debates, the first of which is set for Sept. 29, could play an outsized role, given the lack of rallies and face-to-face campaigning. But the civic value of these confrontations is likely to be limited and further curbed by circumstance.

If your goal in watching a debate is to open-mindedly define differences and hear the rationale of a candidate, good luck. Will Trump be forced to justify his long trail of falsehoods and policy failures in an honest and meaningful way? Probably not.

Will Biden avoid inaccuracy and hyperbole and spell out exactly how he'd proceed once in office? Probably not.

Will Americans come away with a new understanding of a candidate they're not already disposed to support or oppose? Probably not.

The debates could be widely watched again for World Wrestling Entertainment-like value. But there will be none of the usual hooting audiences, lectured by moderators to pipe down. The vice presidential candidates are scheduled to face off, Harris versus Mike Pence, on Oct. 7.

The candidates are neither new nor unknown. Partisan polarization makes it easier than usual to predict where large geographical blocs will be heading.

Democracy may die in darkness, but it also can stumble in broad daylight. Consider this election season as something of an experiment in which the conventions and debates might prove even less useful than usual.

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