ATLANTA – In another profound way that the coronavirus pandemic has upended American life, the Democratic National Convention started Monday with no convening. Instead, Democrats opted for the first virtual convention as the party begins the formal process of nominating Joe Biden as its candidate for president.
Here are five takeaways from the first night.
Trump’s divisiveness has united Democrats
From former Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich to self-proclaimed democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, the first night of the convention showcased how wide the Democratic party’s tent is — and, in contrast, how narrow a political space is occupied by its counterpart.
Integral to Biden’s pitch is the idea that he can unite the country against President Donald Trump with a call to restore common decency. And the Democrats showed how people on either ends of the ideological spectrum are joining that effort. “We can all see what’s going on in our country today and all the questions that are facing us, and no one person or party has all the answers,” Kasich said in his convention message. “But what we do know is that we can do better than what we’ve been seeing today, for sure.”
Sanders had a similar, if blunter, warning. “My friends, I say to you, and to everyone who supported other candidates in this primary and to those who may have voted for Donald Trump in the last election: The future of our democracy is at stake,” the Vermont senator said. “We must come together, defeat Donald Trump and elect Joe Biden. ... The price of failure is just too great to imagine.”
That open-door approach for Democrats is an implicit contrast with Trump, who is notorious for slamming any Republican who publicly criticizes him and whose convention next week is not likely to feature as wide an ideological range. It makes it harder to agree on a governing platform besides Don’t-Be-Trump. But Democrats are gambling on that being sufficient to win.
Virtual enthusiasm isn’t easy
One of the most urgent questions heading into a virtual convention was whether the format could generate enthusiasm. The first impression, charitably, is that it remains a tall order.
Actress Eva Longoria emceed the night’s programming, a combination of prerecorded and live material, from a studio. On one hand, Longoria’s video interactions with everyday Americans — a farmer, a student, a small business owner, among others — offered a better look at their lives than having them on a traditional convention stage in front of thousands of delegates.
But there’s also something lost when the headliners — well-known politicians who are used to much different environs — can’t feed off the crowd. You can take the same zinger against Trump or a wrenching personal biographical pitch about Biden, and it just won’t land the same way when delivered straight to a camera.
Democrats are clearly aware that they also lost the camera shots that at a normal convention would capture the party’s racial, ethnic and gender diversity — that much is assured by party rules on state delegations. They tried to make up for it from the start, with an invocation delivered in Spanish and English and a national anthem sung by children and adults from all over the country, representing a range of races and ethnicities.
Conventions have long been derided in some circles as infomercials. Now the evolution is complete.
Dems push contrast with Trump on race
Democrats showed out of the gate that they will continue to draw a sharp contrast with Trump and Republicans on the matter of racial justice — giving the issue emotional prominence on the opening night.
In the first half hour, Democrats showcased the family of George Floyd, the Black man whose killing by a white Minneapolis police officer on May 25 spawned nationwide protests and intensified calls to address the nation’s history of systemic racism. One of Floyd’s brothers spoke about him and named a litany of other Black Americans killed by police, followed by a moment of silence.
Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington, D.C., introduced the Floyd family from Black Lives Matter Plaza, the stretch of 16th Street in Washington leading up to the White House that was repainted and renamed in the wake of Floyd’s death.
Bowser compared the history of peaceful protest in the nation’s capital with Trump ordering Lafayette Square cleared with tearing agents so he could walk to a nearby church to be photographed with a Bible.
“While we were peacefully protesting, Donald Trump was plotting,” Bowser said. “I knew if he did this to D.C., he would do it to your city or your town, and that’s when I said enough.”
Trump, meanwhile, confirmed two guests he has invited to participate at his convention next week: a white St. Louis couple who gained national headlines when they emerged from their house wielding weapons to confront protesters who were in their neighborhood.
Biden already presence
In traditional conventions, the nominee is mentioned relentlessly from the podium but goes unseen until the closing night, with the rare exception of cameos.
But in a virtual convention, all the rules go out the window.
Biden was featured Monday in several video snippets and even appeared in a roundtable segment where he talked to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and others about racial justice issues, from voting rights to changing policing practices.
That may cut down speaking time for other Democrats in an already truncated convention. But it also increases the odds that Biden will get maximum exposure to voters who may pop in and out of the broadcast or online stream over four nights.
Michelle Obama a closer
There are few people in politics in a highly polarized country that have the popularity of former First Lady Michelle Obama.
Four years ago, she used her Democratic National Convention speaking slot to highlight a slogan that didn’t work, politically, for her party in 2016: “When they go low, we go high!”
This year, Obama had another task — to lend some of her golden glow to the less luminescent Biden.
“I know Joe,” she said in excerpts released from her prerecorded video. “He is a fundamentally decent man, guided by faith.”
“And he listens,” Obama added, a Biden campaign sign over her shoulder. “He will tell the truth, and trust science.”
Her remarks were more overtly political than her other speeches, and now the larger question for Biden may be the extent to which Obama campaigns for him in the fall.