SALT LAKE CITY —A week ago Utah Republicans met in a hockey rink and NHL-worthy fights broke out regularly for nearly 12 hours. Saturday, Utah Democrats convened at the Salt Palace sharing the convention center with an energy healing conference and a Tai Kwon Do martial arts competition. Many wondered if a full-contact moment of silence might result.
To their credit the Utah Democrats worked swiftly and strategically to move through their nominations and platform. Progressives and moderates traded a few jabs but it was a good day for Utah Democrats.
Here is what we learned:
1. Brevity and clarity lead to a focus on unity. The Democratic Party leadership should be commended for its work to take the party platform from 24 pages down to two. Focusing on the principles that unite a party is a far better exercise than spending countless hours getting deep into the weeds on every possible issue. This usually results in a document no one reads and internal fights that can divide your ranks for decades. In full disclosure I was part of just such an effort at the 2016 GOP national convention where I proposed a one page, 1,176 word platform of principles in contrast to the 65-page, 33,000-word tome the GOP adopted instead.
Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, spoke prior to the platform discussion and implored the delegates to support the new platform, declaring they will be more successful unifying around principles than having purity tests and splitting hairs on platform language — like the GOP. The delegates made only minor changes, adding in language on marijuana, the death penalty and equal rights before adopting the document. This could be the most important change in a long time for the future success of Utah Democrats.
2. It is easier to run against things than for things. Despite rousing speeches from Sim Gill and National Democratic National Committee Vice Chairman Michael Blake — who called upon Utah Democrats to focus on what principles and policies Democrats are for — most of the election speeches centered in lists of grievances and things the candidates were against. Being against President Donald Trump, Mitt Romney and Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, were prominent.
Gill, with a prime speaking slot and possibly kicking off a 2020 gubernatorial run, encouraged delegates to share why Democrats are good. Blake said they could win as Hillary-Democrats, Sanders-Democrats or Obama-Democrats, but they needed to be Utah-Democrats. When it came around to wooing delegates in candidate speeches, it was more standard progressive talking points.
3. Change is hard. Many of the speakers and party leaders spoke of youth and diversity and how vital both are to the party and its future success. Yet looking out at the audience, the crowd looked very similar, but smaller in number, to the GOP convention — mostly older and whiter delegates.
The message here is clear: Neither Democrats nor Republicans are giving young people a reason to join their party. Both sides tout that millennials will comprise more than 50 percent of the vote in 2018 but neither side has figured out how to truly make them part of their coalition.
4. Utah delegates don't like coronations or moderates but are OK with well-known moderate candidates if they think they are the best chance for victory.
5. Political speeches still matter and are harder to deliver than you think. The speeches Saturday included some awkward moments, a number of candidates running out of time and having their microphone cut before they delivered their close, a candidate calling the delegates "stupid" and a host of other bloopers common to conventions. Blake, the DNC vice chairman, delivered the most powerful presentation of the day, which was really more of a revival sermon than a political speech. He moved the audience with soaring rhetoric and syncopated repetition. He had delegates on their feet and emotionally stirred. He had them chanting, "I will vote" and committing to make a difference, not just in the election but in their communities.
My column this week is about why inspiring oratory still matters. Blake demonstrated why it matters and the difference it can make. He had done his homework, and not just the easy stuff about the Jazz winning Friday night. He rattled off counties including Daggett, San Juan, Iron and Kane — without notes. There was only one moment where he lost the audience, when he pointed out that he did not stand for the national anthem. Utah Democrats fully support his right to do so, but it clearly distracted from a speech that delivered on every other front.
It ended up being a very good day for Democrats. They have legitimate candidates for all major races. While their ability to ride a blue wave and create a blue tsunami in very red Utah will be difficult, they held a successful convention and are positioned to see if the rhetoric of the spring can be transformed into votes and victories in the fall.