The Democratic National Convention (DNC) – an “unconventional convention”, as various people have noted – took place over four nights this week. Though it was meant to be held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a state that Hillary Clinton famously did not visit and then lost in 2016, the coronavirus pandemic prevented even the nominee, former vice-president Joe Biden, from making the trip. The speakers instead virtually beamed in from all over the place. And the convention was all over the place, too.
This is because the Democrats are this year trying to cast themselves as the big tent party. They are doing so in part because the Republican candidate, President Donald Trump, is doubling down on an appeal to his base. The 2020 DNC, with speeches from both John Kasich, a Republican former governor of Ohio, and Bernie Sanders, a socialist, was presumably meant to appear welcoming to all by comparison.
But in trying to please everyone, the Democrats run a risk of convincing none. The progressive left wonders why the Republicans are there; the pleas put forth in video compilations of Republicans urging their own to vote Biden are drowned out by calls to take climate change seriously and enact gun control legislation. That isn’t to say that the Democrats were wholly without a message. In fact, they had two: that Joe Biden is decent and that Donald Trump is incapable of doing his job.
The people who made this case most compellingly were not the actual people on the ticket – Biden and his running mate, California senator Kamala Harris (though Biden gave a solid speech that put to rest, at least for now, the idea that he can’t form a coherent thought). They were former president and first lady, Barack and Michelle Obama. Both repeated, again and again, what a good person Joe Biden is: “a man of faith”, Michelle Obama said; “a brother” to the former president. Yet their most memorable lines were not about Biden, but searing indictments of Trump.
“Let me be as honest and as clear as I possibly can,” Michelle Obama said Monday (17 August). “Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country. He has had more than enough time to prove that he can do the job, but he is clearly in over his head. He cannot meet this moment. He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us. It is what it is.” (Her final line, “It is what it is”, mimicking Trump’s own response to the American pandemic death toll in a recent Axios interview.)
Two nights later, her husband echoed her anti-Trump sentiment. “For close to four years now, he’s shown no interest in putting in the work; no interest in finding common ground; no interest in using the awesome power of his office to help anyone but himself and his friends… Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t.”
If you listened closely, however, you could also hear an indictment of – or at least addendum or correction to – words the Obamas themselves had spoken at conventions past.
“When they go low, we go high,” Michelle Obama said in 2016. But on Monday night, she clarified: “going high does not mean putting on a smile and saying nice things when confronted by viciousness and cruelty… It means scraping and clawing our way to that mountain top… And going high means unlocking the shackles of lies and mistrust with the only thing that can truly set us free: the cold, hard truth.”
Similarly, in 2004, Barack Obama launched himself to national fame in a keynote speech that stressed that there’s no Democratic or Republican America, but a United States of America. On Wednesday night, however, he said principles like rule of law and freedom of the press “shouldn’t be Republican principles or Democratic principles. They’re American principles. But at this moment, this president and those who enable him, have shown they don’t believe in these things.”
The lines that brought applause in the past just aren’t true any more. Or, at least, aren’t true without context and correction from their speakers.
Which brings us back to the fundamental tension in this DNC. The old lines don’t work any more. Or they do, maybe, but not for everyone. There are potential voters who believe that a vote for Biden could bring us back to the way things were, and there are potential voters who believe that there is no going back and that maybe, if we’re very lucky, Biden can bring us to a new, better normal. The Democrats need both those voters. Whether this convention reached them is another matter.