That was strange but there was no other choice. No one can convene now. That virus would explode again. Keep your distance, people! So the Democratic National Convention wasn’t a convention at all. But what was it? The New York Times’ Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns saw this:
Democrats opened the most extraordinary presidential nominating convention in recent history on Monday night with a program that spanned the ideological gamut from socialists to Republicans and at times more closely resembled an online awards show than a traditional summer pageant of American democracy.
No, this may have looked like an awards show, but it was a television infomercial. Here, however, no one was selling non-stick frying pans. Democrats were selling basic human decency. That was the product:
Kicking off a four-day conclave during which they hope to both win over moderates who are uneasy with Mr. Trump’s divisive leadership and energize liberals who are unenthusiastic about their own nominee, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democrats reached for the recent past.
They showcased the leader of the left and their reigning presidential runner-up, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont; a handful of Republican defectors, including former Gov. John R. Kasich of Ohio; and the most popular figure from the previous administration – the former first lady, Michelle Obama.
That was the array of good guys – the celebrity endorsements – but the whole thing was a bit surreal:
It was far from clear on Monday night whether the Democrats’ makeshift alternative to a traditional convention would generate the kind of political energy that past conclaves provided with a live broadcast of remarks before crowds roaring with enthusiasm. Oddly absent from the evening were the basic staples of convention atmospherics: applause, laughter, chanting and jeering.
The speakers appeared from different cities across the country, delivering their remarks in the fashion of the opposition party response to the State of the Union: well-written and carefully rehearsed but without the sort of audience interaction that can enhance or diminish political oratory.
In short, boring, but there was a plan to deal with that:
There was a rousing rendition of the national anthem sung by young people across the country who appeared in multiplying boxes on the screen like so many members of the Brady Bunch. It was the first of several such interludes, breaking up sober discussions of racial justice and other subjects with brief recordings of voters talking about their political support for Mr. Biden or Americana-infused video clips with musical accompaniment.
But they did have to get down to the business at hand:
With no arena, and no loudspeaker to introduce the presenters, Democrats turned to an MC of sorts, the actress Eva Longoria, who kept the evening moving between prerecorded and live video presentations…
“The past four years have left us, as a nation, diminished and divided,” Ms. Longoria said at the opening of the program, alluding to the pandemic, its economic devastation and much else.
Ms. Longoria conducted brief interviews with regular voters chosen to represent different perspectives on the Trump era. Among them was a Pennsylvania farmer, Rick Telesz, who began by offering condolences to the Trump family on the death of the president’s brother, Robert Trump, over the weekend.
Yea, that was simple planned common decency on display, as that was what they were selling, but that Republican from Ohio was better at it:
Mr. Kasich, appearing outdoors in what appeared to be a pre-recorded segment, spoke the longest of any of the Republicans and sought to assuage his fellow party members about voting for a Democrat. “In normal times something like this probably would never happen, but these are not normal times,” he said before directly addressing the fears of some GOP voters. “They fear Joe may turn sharp left and leave them behind. I don’t believe that; no one pushes Joe around.”
Yep, he’s a good man who won’t betray any of you Republicans, or so says Kasich. But these are Democrats:
After introductory segments, the program devoted attention to the protests against racial injustice. Appearing above the Black Lives Matter logo painted on the street across from the White House, the mayor of the District of Columbia, Muriel E. Bowser, recounted her anger over Mr. Trump’s deployment of federal troops against protesters this summer.
“I said ‘Enough’ for every Black and brown American who has experienced injustice,” Ms. Bowser said.
Ms. Bowser introduced an appearance by family members of George Floyd, the Black man whose death in the custody of the Minneapolis police this spring set off a national protest movement. Philonise Floyd, George Floyd’s brother, said it was “up to us to carry on the fight for justice,” naming a number of other Black men and women slain by the police in recent years, including Eric Garner and Sandra Bland.
Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the senior Black Democrat in Congress, struck the same theme of national reconciliation, promising Mr. Biden would be “a president who sees unifying people as a requirement of the job.”
Trump sneers at that idea, and at anything that people tell him is part of the president’s job, so the emphasis was on all that Trump had screwed up:
Perhaps the most searing critique of Mr. Trump came not from an elected official but from Kristin Urquiza, a young woman whose father, a Trump supporter, died of the coronavirus. Speaking briefly and in raw terms about her loss, Ms. Urquiza said of her father, “His only pre-existing condition was trusting Donald Trump, and for that he paid with his life.”
That sort of thing energizes Democrats. Republicans shrug. Everyone dies eventually, and Trump was having none of this:
On a swing through the Midwest on Monday, Mr. Trump accused Democrats of representing left-wing extremism and, returning to the xenophobic themes of his first presidential campaign, argued baselessly that Mr. Biden would “overwhelm Minnesota with refugees from terror hot spots.”
And everyone shrugged at that, because this is not Trump’s year:
It is likely that there will be more Republican defections before November, including, potentially, from former members of Mr. Trump’s own administration. While no members of Mr. Trump’s cabinet or political inner circle have backed Mr. Biden, on Monday a former senior official at the Department of Homeland Security offered a video testimonial against the president through an advocacy group, Republican Voters Against Trump.
In the video, Miles Taylor, the department’s former chief of staff, described Mr. Trump as having tried to cut off aid to wildfire victims in California because the state opposed him politically. The president, he said, has been “actively doing damage to our security.”
Expect more of that, and Monday evening offered the alternative. Aaron Blake saw this:
One of the necessary casualties of holding a convention virtually – as with campaigning virtually – is spontaneity. Conventions were already glorified coronations and scripted partisan rallies, and that’s even more the case now.
But that also makes some of the chosen messages more interesting. And one of them was reinforced a couple of times Monday night: Biden won’t go hard left…
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) seemed to allude to the idea that Biden, while perhaps not liberals’ ideal, would be someone they can work with. He even, perhaps most strikingly, pitched Biden’s health-care plan, despite attacking it vociferously during the primaries.
“As long as I am here, I will work with progressives, with moderates and yes, with conservatives to preserve this nation from a threat that so many of our heroes fought and died to defeat,” Sanders said.
Bernie is fine with Joe, and willing to chat with any and all conservatives, to save the nation, which they must want too, and then there was this:
At another point, while discussing police reform in a virtual round table, Biden himself echoed a police chief who said there are more good police than bad ones.
“Most cops are good,” Biden said. “But the fact is the bad ones have to be identified and prosecuted and out, period.”
While not perhaps a groundbreaking or terribly controversial statement, it was an interesting inclusion, given that it may not be a sentiment some on the left would like to see emphasized at this particular moment.
Sure, but Joe is a sensible and decent man. Most cops are good. Some are not. Those few have to go. What can Trump attack there? And then there was the main event:
Four years ago, then-first lady Michelle Obama offered one of the most stirring speeches of the Democratic convention. On Monday, she offered a more political indictment, not just of President Trump but of the movement he has led.
“Right now, kids in this country are seeing what happens when we stop requiring empathy of one another,” Obama said. “They’re looking around wondering if we’ve been lying to them this whole time about who we are and what we truly value. They see people shouting in grocery stores unwilling to wear a mask to keep us all safe. They see people calling the police on folks minding their own business, just because of the color of their skin. They see an entitlement that says only certain people belong here, that greed is good and winning is everything.”
There’s no mention of Trump there, but she’s not big on personal attacks. Here she didn’t need to be:
Obama also alluded to a line from her 2016 speech – “When they go low, we go high” – which has at times fallen out of favor with some Democrats who want a more forceful approach to winning elections.
“But let’s be clear, going high does not mean putting on a smile and saying nice things when confronted by viciousness and cruelty,” Obama said. “Going high means taking the harder path. It means scraping and clawing our way to that mountaintop. Going high means standing fierce against hatred while remembering that we are one nation under God.”
It means being a decent person, but she can throw some shade:
Continuing in that vein, Obama offered one of the most memorable attacks of the night, referring to Trump’s repeated statements that the coronavirus death toll “is what it is.” She called him out by name, something she didn’t do in that 2016 speech.
“Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country,” Obama said. “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.”
Yes, she quoted him. She threw his words back in his face, elegantly and politely. That was even more deadly, and Blake notes this:
In a speech where she also made a personal and unusually political case for her husband’s former vice president and implored viewers to prepare for obstacles when voting, it’s that line about Trump that could live on.
But she also said he is clearly in over his head. That line works too. Michael Gerson explains why:
President Richard Nixon demonstrated that the GOP could win with a message of White grievance. That dubious achievement somehow got lodged in Donald Trump’s brain as a political ideal.
That’s his thesis and it does explain a few things:
Amid the social turbulence of the late 1960s and early 1970s, many White people were convinced that American identity was being assaulted, diluted or corrupted. Some tried to blame African American rioters, radicals and “agitators.” Some placed the main responsibility on hippies, weak-kneed liberals and pointy-headed intellectuals. Nixon took such resentments and sent them into political battle.
The strategy made political (though not moral) sense. When Nixon announced the existence of a “silent majority” in late 1969 and employed the “Southern strategy” in two presidential elections, he had two things going for him. First, about 88 percent of the U.S. population was White. Second, the social disorders that Nixon decried were widespread. In July 1967 alone, there were riots in Newark (where 26 people died), Plainfield, N.J.; Minneapolis; Detroit (where 43 people were killed); and Milwaukee. After the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in early 1968, violence spread to more than 100 cities. In that demographic and social environment, appeals to “law and order” were often disturbingly effective.
But that was then, not now:
It sometimes seems like Trump has just emerged from a time machine – fresh from a delightful strategy lunch with Vice President Spiro Agnew, an instructive discussion on campaign ethics with Attorney General John Mitchell and an editing session with speechwriter Pat Buchanan. Trump stokes fears that minorities will invade the suburbs and that migrants will steal jobs and rape women and that Muslim refugees are “Trojan horse” threats. He attacks journalists as “enemies of the people.” He tries to lump peaceful protesters with violent provocateurs. It is all very much like Nixon – without the intelligence, military service, governing experience or geostrategic insight.
Trump’s advocates cite some factors in their favor. They claim that the dislocation caused by globalization is the dry underbrush for their populist wildfire. And among White evangelicals, Trump has taken full advantage of the fear and resentment fueled by lost social status.
But this is not Nixon’s America. About 72 percent of the American population is now White, and more minority children than White children are being born each year. Even given recent events in Portland, Ore., and Chicago, the level of social disorder does not compare to the late 1960s. A solid majority of Americans supports the aims of the Black Lives Matter movement, rather than fearing (as Fox News’s Tucker Carlson charmingly put it) that it will “come for you.”
And that leaves this:
It is absurd to talk about White grievance politics as the wave of the political future. Republicans are now determining if the 2016 presidential election was the last time this message worked, or the second-to-last time…
One faction of thinkers and prospective presidential candidates (such as Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton) believes that the Trump wave is the new, permanent level of the ideological tide. They seek to practice Trump’s grievance politics minus the crazy. But they underestimate how discredited this type of politics has become because of Trump’s cruelty and deadly incompetence – and how complete the public repudiation of the GOP is likely to be in November.
But the other faction is useless now:
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Ronald Reagan reorganized the GOP message around the principle of economic opportunity, arguing for the moral achievements of democratic capitalism. Reagan disciples such as Jack Kemp turned a message of economic empowerment into an instrument of outreach.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, George W. Bush attempted to reconstitute the Republican message around the theme of community. Since human beings are shaped in the context of social institutions – such as families, neighborhoods and charitable organizations – compassionate conservatives sought ways to strengthen civil society.
These are the three elements of the modern Republican ideological triad: identity, opportunity and community. Contending that the last two are discredited or irrelevant is a ploy by Trump supporters and Trump’s liberal opponents to reduce Republican ideology to identity alone.
But that ploy worked. Republicanism got hollowed out. Key figures are walking away from the party. They’re not really Republicans anymore. They’re Biden Conservatives. Bret Stephens says he’s one of them:
To be a Biden conservative is to feel about as much enthusiasm for the presumptive Democratic nominee as a Sanders socialist might, albeit from the opposite direction. Everyone is aware of the former vice president’s foibles. Every conservative can point to his policy blunders and offenses.
But that no longer matters:
He isn’t Donald Trump. He isn’t Bernie Sanders. He isn’t angry, bigoted, cruel, demagogic, erratic, frightening or gross. He isn’t going to drive Americans to distraction or the country into a ditch.
Does anyone seriously doubt that, on the day President Biden enters office, the country would revert to a more normal version of itself – more so, at any rate, than it has been in the Bizarro World of the Trump years?
And Stephens is not going back to that mess:
The only way the Republican Party can again become a vehicle for conservative ideas is if Trump is trounced. Populists and philosophical conservatives may sometimes travel a common road, but they are heading now in different directions.
Morally, the central conservative idea is the restraint of personal and public gratification for the sake of virtue. The populist idea is disdain for restraint, even at the expense of virtue.
Trump will, of course, say anything that comes to mind. John McCain was a coward and a fool and not a war hero at all? But it’s more than that:
Politically, the conservative idea is about the preservation of a constitutional order that is itself liberal. The populist idea opposes liberalism in the name of majoritarianism (even when it doesn’t command a majority). Economically, the conservative idea is that free markets foster personal enterprise, frugality, creativity, industry and other components of moral character. The populist idea is that free markets make you filthy rich.
To be a Biden conservative means wanting to Make Republicans Conservative Again – at least by something other than today’s degraded standards.
And that’s why he’s a Biden conservative, and a bit of a fan:
I came of age as a conservative when the great domestic issue of our time was the size and reach of the federal government. Under Trump, Republicans are hardly better than Democrats on that issue and in many respects worse. Federal debt as a percentage of gross domestic product has never been higher since World War II. The gap between government spending and federal revenue has rarely been wider. “What, Me Worry?” says Alfred E. Trump.
But the domestic issue of our time is not the size of government. It’s the unity of the country. We are living through the most serious social unrest in 50 years. We have a president who sparks division by nature and stokes it by design.
Part of the country believes the government conspires against them. Another part believes history has conspired against them. The idea that these beliefs won’t get further radicalized in a second Trump administration is fantasy.
So it’s Joe to the rescue:
Whatever else he does, Biden won’t expend his political capital belittling, demeaning and humiliating other Americans. He won’t treat opponents as enemies, or subordinates as toadies, or take supporters for fools. Joe Biden is the Democratic equivalent of George H. W. Bush – another ambitious vice president who believed in loyalty and decency more than in any particular set of ideas. History remembers the senior Bush’s presidency well.
History remembers his decency, such as it was, and then there’s this too:
I also came of age as a conservative when the great foreign policy issue of the time was the survival and unity of what used to be called “the free world.” That was a world that believed in more-open borders, more free trade, greater unity among the democratic powers, and greater resolve against the totalitarian powers of the day.
Whether it’s in his love letters with Kim Jong-un, his scorn for NATO, his asperity toward Angela Merkel, his credulity with Vladimir Putin, his undermining of the alliance with South Korea or his fire and flattery with Beijing, Trump is wrecking the idea of a free world, and of the possibility of America’s leadership of it. Conservatives used to care about this. They still should.
And all of this leaves them with only Joe Biden:
To be a Biden conservative isn’t easy. It’s about upholding your principles at the expense of your politics, and embracing mediocrity to ward off malevolence. Above all, it’s about curbing your enthusiasm. If that isn’t conservative, what is?
It is, and it’s common decency too. That’s what the Democrats are selling this time. And that’s going well, so far.