Jim Newell: Welcome to the first day of the 2020 Democratic National Convention, coming to you live from a nebulous virtual plane tethered abstractly to the city of Milwaukee. The Democrats’ program this year has been consolidated mostly to a couple of hours of television coverage of both live and recorded speeches, videos, musical performances, and other vaudevillian gimmicks. While “normal” conventions can be a thrill to attend, they also require staying awake for 96 hours straight while wading through unrelenting crowds of sweaty people, being kicked. I am not entirely heartbroken about missing those elements.
I should start, Jeremy, by admitting that I have no real sense of what I’m going to be looking at tonight. I see the lineups and everything, but they give me no feel for a “virtual convention.” Who’s going to be speaking in Milwaukee, and in what setting? Will anyone else be in the room where the speeches are given? Which of the speakers will be remote, who will be live, who will be recorded? Will they pipe in applause? Is this first, experimental evening doomed to end in us jackass “theater critics” making fun of technical glitches and related awkwardness?
Jeremy Stahl: The substantive pointlessness of these conventions—even prior to them taking place in the Sausage Race Astral Plane—is such a long-running theme at this point as to be cliché. That said, in the past there was at least decent value in on-the-ground dispatches that confirmed and fleshed out the reality of actual race dynamics, such as the Sandersistas’ various rebellions during the 2016 convention and what it meant for Democratic unity, or lack thereof. This year, we will get practically none of that substance and much more empty, prescripted mascot runs. Which leaves room for little else but theater criticism of muted Zoom mics or (in my wildest dreams) accidentally recorded bathroom breaks.
There’s been some good reporting on what the technical aspects of this program might look like, but it’s still hard to actually picture. (Prerecorded Billie Eilish scuba mask musical endorsements? NBA virtual fan-style convention delegates Zoom bombing?) That said, this evening’s probable highlight is going to be Sen. Bernie Sanders issuing a fulsome endorsement of his old Senate “friend” Joe Biden in the primetime hour. Even if some of his biggest supporters continue to be repelled by the reality of a centrist Biden-Harris ticket, Bernie himself has appeared to be much more accepting and supportive of Biden’s nomination than he ever was of the 2016 Democratic result, when his convention speech on behalf of Hillary Clinton had more of the feeling to me of a wake than an actual endorsement. Jim, you’ve spent a lot of time reporting on Sanders. How would you explain his apparently warmer feelings toward Biden, and what are you expecting from his address tonight?
Jim: I do not live in Sanders’ head, but from what I know and have read elsewhere, one of the big reasons he likes Biden better than Clinton is simply that Biden is nicer to him, and has treated him with respect over the years—crucially, before he was required to treat Bernie nice in order to win over his voters. Bernie also really wants Trump out of office and is living up to his pledge to do everything in his power to make that happen.
I expect Sanders’ speech—which, according to a press call today, is only scheduled for about eight minutes and is still one of the longer speeches of the night—to be a persuasion effort directed toward his own supporters, and his own delegates, many of whom aren’t thrilled about Biden. He set this process in motion months ago by agreeing to a unity commission that could negotiate issues for the platform with the Biden campaign. He can point to all of the progress made there and tell his supporters that while he and Biden are very different politicians, Biden has emerged from the process, on paper at least, as the most progressive Democratic nominee in modern times.
But there’s another audience beyond reluctant progressives that Democrats are trying to reach in tonight’s program, which is focused on addressing each constituency in the would-be Biden coalition: RINOs for Biden. We learned a while ago that the Republican former governor of Ohio, John Kasich, would be speaking. But more Republicans were added to the schedule Monday morning. Former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and rich business executive/Republican hobbyist politician Meg Whitman. And the PROMINENT REPUBLICAN CONGRESSPERSON coming out for Biden that Kasich teased in a CNN interview Sunday night may be … wait for it … former Rep. Susan Molinari, who represented Staten Island for a few terms in the 1990s. OK?
There’s been some complaining from the left that Republicans are getting more time than progressive rising stars, like New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. What do YOU, Jeremy, make of this strategy?
Jeremy: I understand the progressive frustration with Democrats devoting so much of their limited program to the governor from Ohio who signed abortion bans and defunded Planned Parenthood and the California businesswoman and occasional politician who I misremembered might have been Ted Cruz’s stunt 2016 running mate until I Googled it. Over the weekend, a CBS poll was released showing that Democrats preferred to hear AOC over Kasich by 25 points and this is meant to be a Democratic convention. That said, I sort of get it. Biden’s biggest campaign theme from his launch has been that he is the unifying candidate who can make all Americans—including the not insignificant number of Obama/Trump voters—proud again of a country that has allowed the current president to ban Muslims, kidnap migrant children, kill tens of thousands through negligent mismanagement of the greatest public health crisis of our lifetimes, and attempt to dismantle the U.S. Postal Service in order to steal an election.
All of that bad stuff I just listed—oh, I forgot about the worst recession in generations and the blocking of unemployment relief to starving families—has put a not inconsiderable number of Republican and Republican-leaning independent votes reasonably in play in 2020. So it makes some sense to try to cater to those people, especially if your base is already activated by anti-Trump animus and the votes of these centrist or Republican voters could actually decide a small number of critical swing states.
At the same time, it makes no sense to me to limit so much the time of one of the party’s rising stars. Further, it makes much more sense to give time to disgruntled former Trump voters who are switching to Biden—the sort of people they really want to convince—than it does to show boring Never Trump politicians like Kasich. What do you think of this plan and do you think it will be actively annoying to watch this group of mostly failed Republican politicians, or more just incredibly tedious?
Jim: I think the list of names for the Republican segment isn’t the most marquee, and I will find all of it actively annoying, but I absolutely understand the strategy. First, any party always gives a spot to defectors—Republicans let Zell Miller speak in 2004 and Joe Lieberman in 2008. And the historical badness of Trump means that there are plenty of ex-loyal Republicans looking for a home and you want to extend a hand. Give them a segment on one of the nights.
There’s this marketing term campaigns use about creating “permission structures” for crossover voters, and that’s what this is. Cedric Richmond, one of Biden’s campaign co-chairs, put it like this in a press call earlier Monday: “There are a bunch of people out there—silent Biden voters. Republicans that want to vote for Biden or that will be voting for Biden. And it’s important to let them know that they’re not alone. And it’s OK, that there are Republican leaders that are voting for Biden-Harris.” He added that these are “Republicans that feel bullied—those Republicans that feel that they will be isolated if they support Biden, and that they will be picked on. This will show them that they’re not alone.”
I would think this part about them being “bullied” was silly, but I did talk to people on the campaign trail, at Biden events, who didn’t want to give me their names because they’d never voted for a Democrat before and didn’t want their friends to know. So I think Biden is speaking to something real. Some Democrats will hate it, but then it will be over, and then they can watch Bernie Sanders and Michelle Obama.
Jeremy: I think that’s right. Bernie Sanders will offer progressive red meat and Michelle Obama is one of the most beloved figures in the Democratic Party, and by the end of the night most Democrats probably will not remember Christine Meg Todd Bill Frank Bobo Whitman’s name. Ending the night with Michelle Obama is going to be particularly satisfying for Democrats. As I’ve written before, had she shown any interest whatsoever in a political career then she would likely be a virtual lock herself to become president or vice president. She has zero such interest, though, and so Democrats who would have loved her candidacy will have to settle for tonight’s speech.
I expect and imagine it will do a few things. First of all, it seems likely that Obama will directly confront and rebut Trump’s unprecedented assault on the mechanics of the 2020 vote and the legitimacy of the upcoming election. Having someone who is consistently surveyed as the most-admired woman in the country offer a rousing rebuttal to Trumpism will, I expect, reinforce the themes of national unity and the notion that Democrats and some number of Republicans share many principles, notably a desire to preserve America as a democracy and to not die from a raging pandemic. Finally, the speech will be a rallying cry for the base and further underline one of Biden’s strongest and most successful primary campaign messages: that his presidency will be in many ways a restoration of Barack Obama’s.
Hopefully, though, we’ll also get at least one cyber toilet glitch.
Jim: Some other items to watch on the agenda: the COVID segment kickoff with a big speech from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who maybe doesn’t have the best record on COVID. The Maine state House speaker who’s challenging Sen. Susan Collins, Sara Gideon, will get to speak … but only to introduce a performance by singer Maggie Rogers. Alabama Sen. Doug Jones will be speaking, too, a somewhat brave thing to do considering he’s up for reelection in Alabama. Also, there will be some sort of segment or video of our old friends, the losers from the Democratic primary, reliving old memories about how they’re losers who lost.
But otherwise, it’s all about listening for that background flush.
Jeremy: *click, whoosh*