What Is the Democratic Party in 2020?

The strangest Democratic National Convention in modern history — a four-night telethon that felt by turns intimate and awkward — concluded on Thursday night, with former Vice President Joe Biden accepting his party’s nomination for president on the third time trying.

“This is a life-changing election that will determine America’s future for a very long time,” he said in his primetime speech. “Character is on the ballot. Compassion, decency, science, democracy. They’re all on the ballot. And the choice could not be clearer.”

But these quadrennial conventions serve as more than a coronation for the presidential nominee. They’re also a chance for the parties to tell stories about who they are and what they stand for, to diagnose the nation’s ills and to offer up a vision for the future.

So what did we learn from the 2020 Democratic convention?

Biden and his fellow Democrats are more united than they’ve ever been in modern times over the existential threat posed by President Trump to this country. From there, however, the story gets complicated, the prescriptions less clear, the vision harder to discern.

Joe Biden’s speech was a promise of restoration and an appeal to light over darkness.

Biden’s convention address was impassioned and clear. The 77-year-old Democrat, derided by Trump as “Sleepy Joe,” was instead sharp and focused, angry and optimistic. “If you entrust me with the presidency,” he said, “I will draw on the best of us, not the worst. I will be an ally of the light, not of the darkness.”

Biden excoriated Trump’s performance as president (in particular, his mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic) and Trump’s appeal to forces of division. Biden called himself a proud Democrat, but in keeping with the Big Tent theme of convention — which gave prime speaking slots to the likes of current and former Republicans John Kasich, Colin Powell, and Mike Bloomberg — his address welcomed all Americans of good character and conscience to join his coalition. C’mon over, he seemed to say. It’ll be better with Biden.

Biden’s speech promised a restoration — of humanity, of science, of expertise, of alliances, and most important, of values. The former vice president appealed to a greatness of the American character. His invocation of light, rivaling the darkness of Trump’s egotism and racism, drew on the same rhetoric as Ronald Reagan’s vision of America as a “shining city upon a hill.”

Biden’s speech was remarkably old-school, befitting a politician who first ran for the Democratic nomination in 1988. Biden didn’t offer the soaring rhetoric of Barack Obama in 2008, or the then-youthful futurism of Bill Clinton in 1992. His speech was peppered with tales of his hardscrabble upbringing in the 40’s and 50’s — of stern fathers and mean Catholic school nuns. But it spoke to a classic vision of America: A country secure in its greatness in the world, a country confident enough to welcome immigrants into the American dream, and a country bountiful enough to pass prosperity to the next generation. “It will be the work of the next president to restore the promise of America to everyone,” Biden said.

Yet even as he invoked the past greatness of America, Biden recognized how short our country has often and lately fallen in delivering on its promise. He spoke of the election as a battle for the soul of America, and the imperative of “Winning it for those communities who have known the injustice of the ‘knee on the neck.’ For all the young people who have known only an America of rising inequity and shrinking opportunity. They deserve to experience America’s promise in full,” Biden said.

Biden’s address was short on policy specifics. But it was an effective sales job for integrity, competence, and common sense, three qualities glaringly lacking in the current resident of the White House. “In times as challenging as these, I believe there is only one way forward, Biden said, “As a united America…. United in our determination to make the coming years bright.”

The Democratic Party in emphasizing a big tent over big ideas

Democratic socialist Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) on the same billing as John Kasich, the former Republican governor of Ohio? Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) alongside Colin Powell, the former secretary of state under President George W. Bush?

This was not a convention built on big ideas; it was a convention intent on showing off a big tent. The Biden campaign, with its choice of speakers and the evil-Trump theme of so much of its programming, sought to make an appeal to the broadest swath of Americans. We heard from Ed Good, a 95-year-old World War II veteran who had voted for Trump in 2016, why he would not — could not — support Trump this year and would instead vote for Biden. We heard from Kasich, who praised Biden as a “reasonable” politician who would “bring us together to help us find that better way.” We heard from Powell, who said Biden would be “a commander in chief who takes care of our troops in the same way he would his own family.” We heard from other Republicans who attested to Biden’s decency and honesty as a political leader.

At this start of this campaign, it was hard to envision a chief proponent of the Iraq war (Powell) and one-time ardent foe of unions and abortion rights (Kasich) earning a speaking slot at the party’s national convention. The 2020 Democratic race began a year and a half ago as a battle royale between nearly two-dozen contenders. And the way those candidates — with the exception of the now-party nominee — tried to distinguish themselves was by their ideas.

The Democratic race was, for a time, a real contest of ideas. The candidates churned out major proposals to deal with climate change, abusive policing, income inequality, health insurance, gun safety, corruption in Washington, D.C., and on and on. As reporters, it was at once dizzying and thrilling, not to mention almost impossible to keep up with. But the candidates that surged in the polls and raked in small-dollar donations back then were the ones whose policy plans seemed to resonate most with the Democratic Party’s most loyal voters. Let the best idea win.

It didn’t last. Biden, who has built his campaign around what he calls “a fight for the soul of this nation,” did little compete in this battle of ideas but rode his support with the party’s most loyal voters to one primary victory after another, sewing up the nomination this spring. Biden has since consulted with fellow Democrats like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee to beef up his policy agenda. Still, his campaign — and the entire Democratic convention — were woefully short on ideas. Where was the talk of truly rooting out corruption and self-dealing in Washington? What about our forever wars and our warming world?

Ambitious policies and big ideas are not and never were the core of Biden’s campaign. His appeal works on an emotional level, a man who has seen more than his share of tragedy saying he sees yours and vowing to break from the sound and fury of the past three and a half years.

Sen. Kamala Harris made history and reinvigorated the Biden campaign

It’s shameful that it took so long, but on Wednesday night Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) wrote her name (yet again) into the history books when she became the first woman of color on a presidential ticket. In her speech, she invoked past leaders in the centuries-long fight for women’s rights, figures such as Mary Church Terrell, Diane Nash, and Shirley Chisholm.

Harris’s biography is both singular and quintessentially American. The daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, steeped in the activism of the Civil Rights Movement and the fight for black liberty, Harris brings to the campaign a story just as compelling as Biden’s, and complimentary in many ways.

Harris, at 55, is two decades younger than Biden. She brings an energy and a vitality that has often felt lacking in Biden’s candidacy. And for a campaign so fixated as making the case against another four years of President Trump, Harris’ background as a prosecutor and her withering approach on a dais will be assets on the campaign trail, such as it is, and on the debate stage. “I know a predator when I see one,” she said Wednesday night.

And if the Biden-Harris ticket prevails, and Harris gets four or eight years as vice president, she will have cemented her place in the Democratic Party and set the stage for her own possible bid for the White House.

Democrats have total clarity on one idea, though: Trump’s failures.

“Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t,” Barack Obama said Wednesday. “And the consequences of that failure are severe. One hundred and seventy thousand Americans dead. Millions of jobs gone while those at the top take in more than ever. Our worst impulses unleashed, our proud reputation around the world badly diminished, and our democratic institutions threatened like never before.”

In a paragraph, Obama summarized Democrats’ attacks on Trump and their effort to make this election a referendum on his dismal record. Trump’s inept handling of Covid was the most frequent theme, but the convention speakers also repeatedly cautioned that he’s an existential threat to Democracy and said Trump’s personal failures are part of what makes modern life so frequently exhausting and unpleasant.

A year ago, when unemployment was at record lows and only geography buffs knew where to find Wuhan, Democrats might have had to do more to convince a majority of voters that Trump’s ineptitude had cost them personally. But now the nation is full of people with stories like Kristin Urquiza and her father, a Trump supporter who followed the president’s example in underestimating the risk of Covid and then died from the disease. Urquiza was one of the first few speakers and the convention, and she set the stage for what was to come. “The coronavirus,” she said, “has made it clear that there are two Americas: the America that Donald Trump lives in and the America that my father died in.”

Progressives and the party establishment have paused their power struggle, not ended it

Unlike in 2016, when tensions between Sanders and Clinton supporters still simmered in Philadelphia, 2020’s virtual convention was a display of party unity — with nearly all of Biden’s highest-profile primary opponents lining up to sing his praises. There was a brief flap when Ocasio-Cortez on Tuesday gave a nominating speech for Sanders, a procedural move that was inaccurately reported as a jab at Biden. But the nation’s highest-profile younger progressive aimed to correct the record on Instagram Live later that night.

“I think it’s important for us to talk about the deeper issues of this election, because let’s keep it real: We need to win in November. November is about, in my opinion, stopping fascism in the United States. That is what Donald Trump represents.”

If Democrats succeed in stopping fascism in November, however, they’re set for a massive debate over what to do next. Biden centered his pitch on beating Trump and continuing the “Obama-Biden” legacy. Sanders and Warren ran on the idea that Trump was the product of a breaking nation, one that could be fixed by embracing Medicare for All and a Green New Deal. Since his primary win, Biden has made overtures to the progressive movement in his policy stances, adopting Warren’s child-care plan and moving closer to Sanders on labor and climate issues.

The health care debate that defined the early part of the primary — Biden’s push to expand Obamacare against Sanders’ plan for universal government coverage — is being discussed in more amiable terms, but it’s far from over. “While Joe and I disagree on the best path to get to universal coverage, he has a plan that will greatly expand health care and cut the cost of prescription drugs. Further, he will lower the eligibility age of Medicare from 65 to 60,” Sanders said Monday.

So far, the concessions Biden has made to progressives come in the form of changes to his campaign platform. But additions to an official platform mean exactly nothing unless a president later devotes the time and political capital needed to pass them into law. And progressives are wary of being ignored in a Biden administration. Those anxieties were heightened Thursday after Ted Kaufman, the head of Biden’s transition team, said Trump-era additions to the national debt would make it difficult to increase federal spending — a prerequisite for the progressive agenda.

“When we get in, the pantry is going to be bare,” Kaufman told the Wall Street Journal. “When you see what Trump’s done to the deficit…forget about Covid-19, all the deficits that he built with the incredible tax cuts. So we’re going to be limited.”

Ocasio-Cortez responded on Twitter: “This is extremely concerning. The pantry is absolutely not bare. We need massive investment in our country or it will fall apart. This is not a joke. To adopt GOP deficit-hawking now, when millions of lives are at stake, is utterly irresponsible. Hold the line. Win. Lead.”

The task of bridging those divides will fall in part to a primary candidate who ran to Biden’s left but Sanders’ right: Kamala Harris.

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