Aug 16, 2020 79 days to Nov 03, 2020
The Surge

Slate’s guide to the 2020 races and politicians everyone’s talking about this week.

Welcome to this week’s very special edition of the Sunday Surge, a rare treat that we’d love to have delivered in print form to all loyal subscribers by mail, except the mail isn’t delivered on Sundays and, soon, won’t be delivered on any of the other days either.

We write to you on the eve of the “virtual” Democratic National Convention. If this were, say, 1994, that would sound very cool—you’d imagine everyone wearing those gloves and goggles and being at the convention through virtual reality. But since it’s 2020, what it means is just a bunch of dweebs talking into the computer. Who’s ready to party?? (No, this will not be the last time we link to the 1996 DNC “Macarena” video in this post.)

Below you’ll find seven things that the Surge, in spite of these reined-in circumstances, will be watching for this week. Chief among them: What’s Joe Biden been thinking all of these quarantined months?

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris smiling and walking in opposite directions.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

Rank 1

1. Biden’s Message

He promised a return to normalcy. What now?

Joe Biden won the Democratic presidential nomination by giving a majority of primary voters, who felt they knew Biden and remembered him fondly from the Obama years, what they wanted: a return to normalcy. Those who underestimated Biden, who may have lost a step from his prime but still knows better than most how to read an electorate, also underestimated the broad appeal associated with simpler times. Biden effectively wrapped up the nomination in early March, just in time for the coronavirus crisis to explode. The convention, which his campaign choreographs, will be the most we’ve heard from him since then. Given [GESTURES BROADLY] all this, what’s the message he and his team want to spend four days drilling home? Is it still a return to a simpler, less pervasive, calmer politics? Or has the coronavirus really gotten Biden, as has been reported, to think bigger about the active role the government will need to play if there’s any hope of dragging things back to what we might consider “normal”? The six-month period of private rumination in Delaware is over for Biden, and now he’s going to show us what he’s learned.

Rank 2

2. Kamala Harris

Time to show off.

The right’s initial efforts to define Kamala Harris got off to a clunky start. The Trump campaign portrayed her as an extreme radical leftist who wants to do communism and, simultaneously, a cop-loving law-and-order prosecutor whose selection was an insult to the earnest, salt-of-the-earth extreme radical left. After getting their wires crossed on this for a day, they gave up and pivoted to a more traditional racist smear campaign. Still! There are concerns on the left about Harris’ prosecutorial record and how Wall Street gave her selection a big thumbs-up. And there are concerns from the center (including some of the former Republicans Biden is courting) about her very liberal voting record. How can she address both concerns? By changing the subject, and using her speech as an opportunity to show off one big reason why she was picked: her ability to flatten the Trump administration rhetorically.

Rank 3

3. The Republican Reaction

Finally, some material.

It’s been frustrating enough for the Trump campaign over these past six months watching their candidate be a bad president. What makes it doubly frustrating, though, is that Biden’s near-isolation has given them little material with which to counter. Yeah, he tosses a bone every once and a while when doing the occasional virtual event. But the pandemic has seriously shorted the Trump campaign’s ability to collect the sort of opposition research b-roll on Biden on which rapid response teams depend, whereas opposition research b-roll on Trump has overtaken hydrogen as the most abundant substance in the galaxy. Republicans have had trouble coming up with a sustained line of attack on Biden throughout the campaign. We’ll see what they come up with after a four-day Democratic television spectacle.

Rank 4

4. Disruptions

Can you protest … virtually?

The 2016 Democratic National Convention was a reporter’s dream. A shitshow. The short way to describe the issue was that a large contingent of Bernie Sanders delegates, concentrated in the California delegation, traveled to Philadelphia not to join in the nomination of Hillary Clinton, but rather to protest it. There were outdoor protests, indoor protests, and indoor protests that moved outdoors. Boos, of anyone, were regular practice. Should we expect something similar from Sanders delegates this time? There has been a pledge signed by 700 delegates to “vote against any platform that does not include a plank supporting universal, single-payer Medicare for All.” (With around 4,000 total pledged delegates, 700 is not enough to actually block the platform.) More broadly, though, the circumstances are different. Sanders has been working to avoid the 2016 scene, asking his delegates to sign a code of conduct to participate “with respect and a spirit of cooperativeness” and also by, you know, dropping out of the race earlier than he did last election. Most importantly, though, is that with this being a mostly virtual convention, Biden’s team will have something that Clinton’s didn’t: the mute button.

Rank 5

5. 60 Seconds With Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez!

Time to go rogue and speak for 61 seconds.

Look. The DNC and the Biden campaign know they don’t want the left flank of the party, and young people, to feel cast aside. They get it, OK? And to show they get it, they will give New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—one of the most well-known, dynamic personalities in the Democratic Party, as well as one of the few elected Democrats under the age of 93—a hearty 60 seconds to address the convention. A 60-second prerecorded message, at that, an intermission of sorts between such riveting keynotes as “A Sneak Peek at the Legislative Branch Appropriations Package for Fiscal Year 2021” from Chuck Schumer and “Fired Up? Ready to Discuss Baltic Policy!” with John Kerry. To be fair, when you haven’t fully endorsed the guy running the convention, you may not get the best speaking slot or duration. Does she use her 60 seconds to make that endorsement? Or maybe a party trick, like reciting the alphabet backward? The Surge will be watching (with a timer).

Rank 6

6. Who’s the Breakout Star?

Our money’s on featured musical guest Stephen Stills.

Every convention launches a figure who’s relatively unknown nationally into global celebrity following one brilliant, memorable speech. At the 2004 Democratic National Convention, it was then–Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama. In 2008, it was… um … and then there was 2012, when … you know … and who can forget whatshisname in 2016, talking about the … politics … stuff? OK, maybe it really was just Obama that one time. Still. It could theoretically happen again. But who? Watch for Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, or Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, all of whom earned real VP consideration for their star potential. (We apologize in advance to Whitmer, Grisham, and Bottoms for applying the Surge Curse and jinxing it.)

Rank 7

7. The Ratings

Oh, so you’re definitely going to watch this, huh? You’re going to sit on your couch, turn on your TV, and watch this?

Like our president, the Surge understands that dignity and human worth are measured by Nielsen television ratings. The Surge also knows that the only reason we will be watching the Democratic National Convention is because we will be fired from our job if we refuse to. What’s your excuse, reader? What makes conventions compelling, to the extent conventions are compelling, is the scene: Thousands of delegates and party leaders all in one place, interacting, responding, cheering, booing, dancing, or demanding satisfaction for acts of dishonor. Conventions are about watching a sea of Trump delegates jeer Ted Cruz for a fleeting moment and not knowing who to root for. What we’re getting this year, instead, are some gussied-up one-way Zoom calls. Is this something that can be made not boring? Can they pipe in noise, or have some animatronic delegates get into knife fights? We’re sure they’ll come up with something—no one knows “fun” like the staff of the Democratic National Committee.