With Joe Biden officially receiving the Democratic nomination for president on Tuesday night, Wednesday night at the Democratic National Convention was reserved for big speeches from just about every prominent Democrat except the candidate himself: former President Barack Obama, previous nominee Hillary Clinton, third-place primary finisher Elizabeth Warren, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Biden’s running mate Kamala Harris. Oh, and Billie Eilish.
The night understandably lacked the DIY charm of Tuesday’s state-by-state roll call vote for president. But it featured Obama’s harshest criticisms to date of his successor, President Donald Trump, and Harris’s opportunity to reintroduce herself to the nation at large after her failed presidential bid. And it devoted airtime to some of the policy priorities that have dominated Democratic politics in recent years: gun control, immigration, climate change, women’s issues, and child care.
Here’s what stood out on night three of the convention.
Winner: The youth
The first half-hour of Wednesday’s presentation was dominated by two issues: gun violence and climate change. In both sections, young Americans took center stage in the Democratic Party’s presentation.
The gun violence segment featured a powerful video, narrated by Parkland activist Emma Gonzalez, about the toll gun violence is taking on American public life. The climate sections spotlighted a series of young activists. And then, as if to hammer the point home, the climate section closed with a performance by Billie Eilish, arguably the most famous Generation Z artist on the planet.
As a formerly young millennial, I found the display of what kids today are doing pretty impressive. But there is a deeper logic behind the DNC’s decision to focus on young activists here.
On both of these issues, some of the most prominent advocates are young (like Greta Thunberg), as are some of the biggest activist organizations (March for Our Lives, the Sunrise Movement). If you’re looking to spotlight young voters, an essential part of the Democratic coalition, it makes sense that you’d pick those segments to do it.
And in the primary, one of the biggest divides between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders was age, with younger voters overwhelmingly backing the Vermont socialist. Spotlighting the work of young activists on issues that younger voters care about is a smart way of trying to court Gen Z voters without coming across in a “how do you do, fellow kids” kind of way.
Winner: Resistance moms
Ladies, remember how cathartic it was to take part in the Women’s March in January 2017? Pussy hat on, offering your fellow protesters carrots and hummus as you huddled in the cold? Democrats would like you to revive that feeling and harness it all the way to the voting booth (or mailbox) come November.
Much of the third night of the 2020 Democratic National Convention was dedicated to the women who have emerged as a powerful force of opposition to the Trump administration. The first hour of the night featured a five-minute video titled “Women’s Suffrage to Women’s March” that interspersed images of women protesting, in politics, and in public spaces, ranging from soccer star Megan Rapinoe to Rep. Maxine Waters to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. If you could channel the last three and a half years of the #Resistance into content, this would be it.
The night also focused on issues that matter to women in particular. The issue of gun violence, for example, was prominently featured. Parkland survivor Emma Gonzalez spoke, as did former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ), a gun control advocate and survivor of gun violence, in a prerecorded video. “We are a nation ready to end gun violence,” she said. “A safer America is possible.”
The programming sought to cast Joe Biden as a champion for women, even though his record on that front is decidedly mixed. Viewers saw a video highlighting the former vice president’s work on the Violence Against Women Act that featured personal and at times disturbing stories from victims, including Ruth Glenn, now CEO and president of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, who was shot by her husband in 1992.
A lot of the night was moving from a gender perspective, especially given that we’re now at the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment’s ratification, which gave women — at least white women — the right to vote across the US. It’s exciting to see House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wearing white in honor of suffragists and channeling their political power. It’s cool to see Elizabeth Warren in a schoolroom talking about child care and reminding you of all her plans. It’s thrilling to have Kamala Harris, a woman of color, with a chance at becoming vice president. And there’s no denying that if Biden is to win the presidency, women voters will play a big part in that, as they did in the 2018 blue wave that handed Democrats the House.
Women are staring up at the glass ceiling yet again, and part of Wednesday’s convention was aimed at telling them they’ll break through. The question is whether they finally will, or if in January 2021, they’ll be back out on the streets in their pink hats, bracing themselves for four more years of Trump.
Winner: Elizabeth Warren
Joe Biden is not an “I have a plan for that” kind of guy.
He has plans, no doubt, but he has never really distinguished himself as a policy wonk (except perhaps as an old hand at foreign policy), or centered his concrete legislative ideas as his biggest attraction. His experience and temperament, rather, have been the primary themes throughout the 2020 cycle, with the advisers and surrogates around him picking up the slack on policy.
Elizabeth Warren, of course, has a plan for that, and that, and that, and everything you can think of as a potential problem facing America. So it was wise of her to use her primetime slot — later in the week and arguably more prominent than that of Bernie Sanders — to assure Democrats, and her supporters, that Biden has a plan for that too. Warren focused on a place of deep continuity with Biden: child care, where Biden has proposed a massive system of subsidies that bears a strong resemblance to Warren’s plan. Both would cap child care expenses at 7 percent of income for most Americans.
Simply pulling out child care, as important as the issue is, would have risked making the speech seem overly niche. But Warren connected it to the broader coronavirus pandemic and the problem of many schools being unable to safely open for the 2020-’21 school year — she delivered the speech from an early childhood education center. Child care “is just one plan,” she concludes. “It gives you an idea of how we get the country working for everyone.”
Warren came in third in the primaries, and it’s not like her supporters were unlikely to support Biden in the general election, so the persuasion role of her speech was limited. But she effectively built a policy case for the nominee, which was exactly her role.
Loser: Hillary Clinton
An important programming detail when considering Wednesday night’s speeches is that most major networks only started tuning in to the proceedings at 10 pm, meaning the activities between 9 and 10 were broadcast to a limited number of people viewing on CNN, MSNBC, C-SPAN, other full-coverage outlets, and online streams.
In that context, the fact that 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was confined to a slot before 10 was a bit of a snub. Failed nominees obviously are never the stars at conventions, but they play important roles on occasion. In 2008, John Kerry gave a 13-minute address defending Barack Obama’s foreign policy credentials and assailing George W. Bush’s management of the Iraq War. Like Clinton, he didn’t speak during the network hour, but he got a lengthy slot beforehand.
Clinton, by contrast, got a noticeably shorter time slot (only five minutes by my count), and delivered low-key remarks. Content-wise, the speech was fine, and Clinton got in some good populist jabs, like, “It’s wrong that billionaires got $400 billion richer during the pandemic while millions lost $600 a week in extra unemployment.”
The most memorable line of her speech was also the saddest: “Joe and Kamala can win by 3 million votes and still lose. Take it from me.” It was a warning to Democratic voters to not be complacent about this coming election — and a reminder of the distance between 2016 and this evening, when the last winner of the popular vote had to settle for a less-than-marquee slot during her party’s convention.
Winner: Making a plan to vote
Democrats had two big messages coming out of Wednesday night’s convention: Vote for Joe Biden, and make sure you have a detailed plan to do it.
The messaging on having a plan to vote started from the get-go. Before the night’s program kicked off, vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris came on in a short segment to tell people not only to vote but to figure out how they were going to vote.
“I know many of you plan to vote this year, but amidst the excitement and enthusiasm for this election, you heard about obstacles and misinformation and folks making it harder for you to cast your ballot,” Harris said. “Each of us needs a plan — a voting plan.”
That messaging continued with the rest of the convention’s biggest speakers and performers, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, singer Billie Eilish, 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and former President Barack Obama.
“They’re hoping to make it as hard as possible for you to vote, and convince you that your vote doesn’t matter,” Obama said. “Make a plan right now for how you are going to get involved and vote. Do it as early as you can, and tell your family and friends how they can vote too.”
Making a plan to vote is important every election, but it’s even more urgent in 2020, which is no normal election year (studies have shown that making a plan to vote increases a person’s likelihood to actually cast their ballot). The coronavirus pandemic has thrown the nation’s system of elections into chaos in many states. Fear of contracting the virus has seen poll workers — many of whom tend to be older — step down from their posts. A lack of poll workers has led to a resulting lack of in-person polling places.
Absentee voting through mail is a sensible option for anyone who doesn’t feel comfortable casting their ballot in person, but the US Postal Service is also facing mounting problems and delays, in some cases caused by the actions of new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a former Trump donor. A recent restructuring by DeJoy had eliminated overtime and gotten rid of mail sorting machines in facilities all over the country, which has led to a slowdown in mail delivery — and growing public concerns about the impact on the election. DeJoy has since reversed some measures in response to the national outcry.
With these myriad challenges, there’s no doubt voting will be more complicated this year than in recent elections. Elections experts say Americans who plan to cast their ballots through the mail need to plan ahead, and get their ballots in as early as possible.
“Don’t wait to register to vote; don’t wait to request a ballot on the deadline,” Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser on elections at the nonpartisan foundation Democracy Fund, told Vox recently. “You’re never going to get that ballot in time.”
Democrats laying out a detailed plan for voters at their convention and weaving that messaging throughout the program was a smart move.
Winner: Kamala Harris
Kamala Harris had a chance to reintroduce herself on Wednesday — and she took it.
In a history-making speech, she confronted Trump with biting one-liners (“I know a predator when I see one”), told voters more about who she is (“[My mother] raised us to be proud, strong Black women and … be proud of our Indian heritage”), and laid out a vision that didn’t shy away from the country’s challenges with race (“None of us are free until all of us are free”).
Many likely knew Harris from her run in the Democratic primary last year, when she emerged as a charismatic candidate but struggled to break through amid critiques of her prosecutorial record and inconsistent messaging from her campaign.
The message she offered Wednesday, however, was far clearer.
Harris explained how her mother’s activism and her parents’ focus on civil rights were the defining influences of her life. She demonstrated exactly how much she brings to the presidential ticket: groundbreaking representation and a policy perspective that was missing before. And she showed that she was able to talk about race in a way that Biden hasn’t been comfortable with.
Perhaps most importantly, by effectively making the case for her candidacy, Harris proved that she was ready to take on the job from day one.
Loser: Hope and change
During his now historic 2004 DNC speech, then-state Sen. Barack Obama wowed convention-goers and TV viewers alike with soaring oratory, denouncing American partisanship and praising national unity. “Yet even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes,” Obama bellowed. “Well, I say to them tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America — there’s the United States of America.”
The rhetoric projected Obama as a national unifier of American politics and helped propel him to the White House.
Today, a little older and a lot grayer, a subdued Obama lamented that “our democratic institutions [are] threatened like never before.” He also conceded “that in times as polarized as these, most of you have made up your mind.” It’s a stark shift.
Of course, the Democratic message is still one of aspirational bipartisanship and unity. A few Republicans have been conspicuously featured thus far at the DNC. Yet Democrats’ messaging on uniting the country is now paired with a more urgent focus on restoring American democracy. During the eulogy for Rep. John Lewis last month, Obama cited a long list of desired democratic reforms, including eliminating the filibuster, automatic voter registration, reenfranchisement of inmates, more polling places, more early voting, an Election Day holiday, and statehood for Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico.
He lingered on that broad theme this evening. “Do not let them take away your power,” he warned during his DNC speech. “Do not let them take away your democracy.”
Sixteen years after Obama exploded on the national scene, his convention speeches have shifted in focus — from the hope and change of an earlier time to the darker theme of rescuing democracy in a more toxic and polarized era.
—Aaron Ross Coleman
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