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Seven takeaways from the Democratic National Convention

It was a final, surreal scene in an extraordinary virtual Democratic convention week that showcased a party unified around Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris — even as sharp differences remain below the surface.

By: New York Times | Wilmington | Updated: August 22, 2020 10:59:59 am
7 Takeaways From the Democratic National ConventionDemocratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, during the Democratic national convention in Wilmington, Delaware, Aug. 19, 2020.

Written by Katie Glueck

After nearly five decades in national politics and in his third run at the presidency, Joe Biden accepted his party’s nomination Thursday with one of the most forceful speeches of his career — given to a dark and empty room, save for a smattering of journalists who watched him live as he addressed the nation by camera.

It was a final, surreal scene in an extraordinary virtual Democratic convention week that showcased a party unified around Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris — even as sharp differences remain below the surface.

Here are seven key takeaways from an unprecedented gathering:

Biden delivered the performance he needed.

Biden is not his party’s smoothest or most electrifying speaker, and President Donald Trump and other Republicans have spent months mocking his record of verbal missteps (despite the president’s own long record of falsehoods and gaffes). But Thursday, Biden delivered his sharpest, most powerful address of the campaign, the kind of speech many even in his own party doubted his ability to give.

He was by turns optimistic about America’s potential and sober about the problems that lie ahead, challenging the caricature of a stumbling orator the Trump campaign has concocted — and benefiting from the low bar his political opponents had set.

It was evidence that in moments that have really mattered — whether it was securing endorsements from rivals before Super Tuesday or accepting the nomination — Biden is capable of performing under pressure. But that is an ability that will be tested again and again in the homestretch of the campaign.

Harris broke barriers, and the Biden campaign hopes she can break through to voters.

Harris, a California senator and former state attorney general, made history Wednesday when she accepted the vice presidential nod, making her the first Black woman and first person of Indian descent to be nominated to a national ticket of a major party. Her prominent presence throughout the convention and her discussion of her own story in deeply personal terms underscored the generational and racial diversity she brings to the ticket, two factors in her ability so far to energize Democrats as Biden’s running mate.

The campaign hopes that her vibrant speaking style and her personal and political background will help her connect in particular with Latino and African American voters and deepen Biden’s appeal among moderate white suburbanites. Like Biden, however, Harris hails from the establishment wing of the party, and it is not clear that she will help Biden win over the most liberal activists who have long been skeptical of his candidacy.

Obama’s passionate speech revealed him as the moral conscience of the party.

Former President Barack Obama, typically known for his cool, even demeanor, delivered an unusually passionate, caustic attack on his successor in the White House as he described the stakes of the election in stark and chilling terms. This presidential contest, Obama made clear, is not about typical partisan warfare; it is about the continuation of American democracy as we know it, he argued, issuing what many Democrats saw as a stirring call to action.

“Do not let them take away your power,” he urged. “Do not let them take away your democracy.”

Michelle Obama, the former first lady, added her own lacerating attack, calling Trump “the wrong president for our country” and urging Americans to make plans to vote.

The speeches were clear distillations of the Democratic argument that this campaign is a national emergency, and Obama, Biden’s most important validator, cast his vice president as a steady and decent leader for dire times.

Biden won the nomination — and for now, the messaging battle in his party.

From the very beginning of Biden’s 2020 campaign, his message has been simple: America’s deepest problems cannot begin to be resolved until Trump is defeated, and Biden — for reasons of experience, character and conciliatory instincts — is just the person to beat him. It was a pitch rooted more in political calculus rather than in sweeping policy ambitions or a radically new vision for the nation, and many Democrats questioned whether that argument would be sufficiently inspiring.

But by this week, it was clear that even Biden’s ideological opposites within the party — including Sen. Bernie Sanders, the avatar of the progressive movement — had embraced Biden’s case for focusing on building the biggest possible coalition to beat Trump, policy differences aside. In a speech that pleased a broad cross-section of the Democratic Party, Sanders cast the election as a battle against authoritarianism and pledged that he would “work with progressives, with moderates, and, yes, with conservatives to preserve this nation” — in keeping with Biden’s framing of the election as a unique crisis.

Jill Biden helped the campaign emphasize an urgent issue for many Americans: education.

Despite serving for eight years as second lady while Biden was vice president, Jill Biden has not been especially well known on the national stage. This week Jill Biden, an English professor by trade, reintroduced herself as an educator who is intimately familiar with the grave fears many American parents are experiencing in this moment.

Speaking from a classroom where she once taught, she appealed directly to families who are worried about their children’s futures at a time of uncertainty over what the school year will look like. She sought to connect those concerns to the priorities her husband would pursue, and she indicated that the campaign understands that full recovery from the problems of the pandemic cannot happen until the needs of working parents are addressed.

Democrats have papered over their policy differences, at least for now.

Democrats hold sharply divergent views on the policy and political questions facing the party, including how to expand health insurance coverage, how to regulate Wall Street and Big Technology, and how much to value bipartisanship. But this week saw little policy debate beyond a broad embrace of matters such as combating climate change and gun violence, welcoming immigrants and improving access to health care. Overall, the number of tributes to Biden’s character far outpaced any details about his governing agenda.

Democrats appear united in their focus on defeating Trump, but how long will that last? And while that was the message pressed by party leaders at the convention, will it be embraced by liberal activists at the grassroots level who have long been unenthusiastic about Biden?

Democrats extended a hand to independents and Republicans. Were those voters listening?

Even as Democrats spent the week moving to unify the party around Biden and Harris, the convention plainly prioritized outreach to moderate voters who may not identify as Democrats but are disillusioned by Trump’s stewardship of the Republican Party.

From videos featuring Republican figures like former Gov. John Kasich of Ohio to Biden’s insistence that the election was “not a partisan moment” but an “American moment,” Democrats pushed the message of country over party at every turn.

The critical test for Biden coming out of the convention will be: How many undecided voters heard and warmed to that message?

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