The Democratic Convention Put the Party’s Contradictions Front and Center

Even as John Kasich reassured conservatives Joe Biden wasn't moving left, Michelle Obama lectured progressives to muster Obama 2008–style enthusiasm for him regardless. It's an incoherent message that could cost the party come November.

In this screenshot from the DNCC’s livestream of the 2020 Democratic National Convention, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee former vice president Joe Biden has a conference call with (L-R) Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot, president and CEO of the NAACP Derrick Johnson, and Eric Garner’s mother Gwen Carr during the virtual convention on August 17, 2020. (DNCC via Getty Images)

Though Joe Biden remains on track to win the presidency, it’s far from guaranteed he will. And if he and the Democratic Party were to once again fail to deliver on the one thing they promise voters anymore, you’ll be able to look back to this year’s Democratic National Convention to find the seeds of their defeat.

The first night of the 2020 DNC was a fitting event for a party that prefers defeat to change. After a humiliating and close to delegitimizing election loss in 2016, Democratic leadership refused to take stock of their own failings, and blamed an assortment of outside forces: Russia, Facebook, Jill Stein, James Comey, to name a few. With Biden at the helm — a candidate with all the same weaknesses as the one who lost four years ago, but even worse — they decided to rerun the exact same campaign as last time, from the all-consuming focus on Trump’s failings right down to the attempt to bring prominent and rank-and-file Republicans into the party fold.

Yet at the same time, the party understands the precarious position it’s in. Between Trump’s outright stated intent to cheat his way to victory, the yawning enthusiasm gap between his and Biden’s supporters, and a raging pandemic that will keep people physically away from the polls, the party elite are well aware low turnout from unenthusiastic sections of the base — voters who are either deeply suspicious or totally indifferent to its candidate — could sink their chances. But any alternative approach that might be more promising would likely involve policies alienating the two constituencies they truly prize: conservative voters and corporate donors.

All of these tensions were on full display in last night’s show, whose organizers seemed determined to double down on every single complaint progressives and those further left have made about the party’s conduct the past four years. Frustrated by a lack of substance and empty rhetoric? Watch speaker after speaker make an affirmative case for Biden based on personal characteristics like decency and empathy, and promises he’ll somehow “restore the soul” of the country. Tired of hearing endlessly about Trump and how bad he is? Cue two hours’ worth of endless droning about the man and what an imperative it is to get him out of power. Indeed, just as a majority of both Democratic and Republican voters cite Trump as their main motivation for voting, Trump was, as in 2016, the star of last night’s show, with Biden a seeming afterthought at his own coronation.

But the most basic conundrum facing the party can be summed up with just a few of the night’s big speeches. Early in the night you had former Republican governor of Ohio John Kasich, a hard-right Republican (despite his reputation) who went to war with unions and abortion rights campaigners, who the Democratic Party officially detested just four years ago. Many questioned why Kasich was speaking at the Democratic convention, particularly given the dearth of speakers from not just the party’s exciting (and popular) emerging left flank, but Muslim and Latino communities, too. It soon became clear why: so Kasich could assure conservative voters that Biden’s public messaging about plans for a Rooseveltian presidency is disingenuous.

“They fear Joe may turn sharp left and leave them behind,” Kasich said. “I don’t believe that . . . No one pushes Joe around.”

That the DNC and Biden campaign would permit this line in a prerecorded, edited speech suggests that — coupled with Biden’s advisers, his running mate, the party platform, his massive corporate fundraising, and the fact that the party’s already backing away from his policy commitments — Biden’s vague hints about becoming another FDR are nothing but smoke and blurry mirrors.

While Kasich reassured conservatives Biden would not be pursuing a progressive agenda, the party rolled out a couple of heavy hitters to beg the party’s progressive and young voters to stick with Biden regardless. First up was Bernie Sanders, who forewent talking about the ideas he had popularized to instead make probably the most substantive case for Biden, not just in starkly laying out the dangers of Trump’s victory, but in briefly listing off some of the policies Biden had signed onto, such as a $15 minimum wage and universal pre-K.

“If Donald Trump is reelected, all the progress we have made will be in jeopardy,” he warned. “My friends, the price of failure is just too great to imagine.”

Then it was Michelle Obama’s turn, in a nearly twenty-minute address aimed squarely at that section of the Democratic coalition least sold on Biden. Acknowledging that “Joe is not perfect,” Obama warned that “this is not the time to withhold our votes in protest or play games with candidates who have no chance of winning,” and urged voters to “vote like we did in 2008 and 2012” and to “show up with the same level of passion and hope for Joe Biden.”

This is the Democratic Party in 2020: if you’re a Republican, they’ll promise you an unambitious, down-the-middle agenda from their nominee; if you’re a progressive, they’ll alternately beg and berate you to vote for that nominee regardless. Obama couldn’t even bring herself to lay out a policy case for Biden, taking all of forty seconds to list off what Biden “wants” for the nation’s children, including being able to go to a good school, see a doctor, and live on a healthy planet, and alluding to vague “plans to make all of that happen.”

The trouble is, you can’t just order people to feel the same “passion and hope” for one candidate as they did for another, or ask them to pull out all the stops for a candidate who promises to do little for them. The people Obama was addressing felt genuinely inspired by her husband in 2008 because he promised them substantive change and broadened the horizons of what they thought politically possible, even if he was being disingenuous the whole time; they feel uninspired by Biden because, like Clinton in 2016, he explicitly narrows those horizons and promises “nothing will fundamentally change.”

Expect to see more of this over the next three days and coming months, particularly if Biden’s lead narrows. Unfortunately, the strategy of taking the party’s disaffected sections for granted and courting conservatives didn’t work out in 2016, while the party hectoring its own voters is often a precursor to its electoral defeat. Just look at Biden on the eve of Obama’s 2010 mid-term “shellacking,” admonishing “our base constituency to stop whining and get out there and look at the alternatives.” Two months later, the GOP took the House with the biggest win in seven decades and the Democrats lost their Senate supermajority, closing the door on whatever transformational aspirations Obama might have had for the rest of his eight years.

The Democratic Party hopes none of this will matter if Trump just keeps bungling the pandemic response. Maybe they’re right. But while the Democrats lecture their own voters and court Republicans, look at what the GOP has planned for its convention: inviting right-wing viral stars to speak, who will disgust liberals and many moderates but fire up its base.

The GOP takes care of its base; the Democratic elite dislikes theirs. And for all their hopes to the contrary this year, that might still make a difference.