Monday night kicked off the most unconventional Democratic National Convention in modern history. And for the most part, the first fully virtual convention went smoothly.
The first night of the 2020 Democratic convention was the true test of what a traditional convention — normally an all-day event where political stars flex their chops in front of thousands of screaming (or occasionally booing) delegates — would look like with two hours of Zoom calls and pretaped speeches.
The very format of the convention recognized the stark reality of America in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. But it also gave regular Americans impacted by Covid-19 and hurt by police brutality a direct voice. Rather than having thousands of people packed into a massive convention hall listening to political rising stars, dozens of Americans beamed in from their living rooms to speak.
Monday night featured plenty of big Democratic names but also emphasized the experience of regular Americans impacted by the Covid-19 crisis, from a small-business owner who said he lost 40 percent of his revenue during the continued economic downturn to Kristin Urquiza, an Arizona woman whose father died of Covid-19 after the state’s hasty reopening.
“My dad was a healthy 65-year-old,” Urquiza said. “His only preexisting condition was trusting Donald Trump, and for that, he paid with his life.”
Perhaps more than any other night on the roster, Monday also showcased the ideological spectrum of those who are backing former Vice President Joe Biden over President Donald Trump in the fall. Two of the night’s most notable speakers were progressive icon and former Biden opponent Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican who in 2018 signed one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the country into law.
“In normal times, something like this would probably never happen, but these are not normal times,” Kasich said in his address — while literally standing at a crossroads.
“Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Trump golfs,” Sanders said in his address, positioned in front of a woodpile in his native Vermont.
The first night of the 2020 DNC certainly wasn’t perfect, but it hit many of the themes Democratic officials wanted. Here are the night’s winners and losers.
Winner: Real people
One of the night’s most scathing indictments of the Trump administration came not from a Democratic politician but from Kristin Urquiza, a young woman who lost her father to Covid-19 in May; he had gone out to an Arizona bar with his friends after the state reopened.
“A few weeks later, he was put on a ventilator, and after five agonizing days, he died alone in the ICU with a nurse holding his hand,” said Urquiza, whose obituary for her father went viral earlier this year. “My dad was a healthy 65-year-old. His only preexisting condition was trusting Donald Trump, and for that, he paid with his life.”
Her conclusion: “There are two Americas: the America that Donald Trump lives in, and the America that my father died in.”
The message of the first day of the four-night virtual gathering was clear: This is about people, and they will be front and center from the start.
An assortment of singers from across the US performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” on a gallery of video screens at the outset of the night, and the first 20 minutes of the evening featured no one of real national recognition except for actress Eva Longoria Baston, night one’s host. Instead, viewers were introduced to Scott, a small-business owner, Marley, the teen founder of #1000BlackGirlBooks, Rick, a farmer, Michelle, an El Paso nurse in Cookie Monster scrubs, and a former Trump voter who is now backing Biden and delivered his address seemingly holding a drink. There was an address from the family of George Floyd, the Black man killed by Minneapolis police earlier this year, who called on the audience not only to remember Floyd but also the people who have unjustly lost their lives to at the hands of police and to racial violence in the United States.
“George should be alive today. Breonna Taylor should be alive today. Ahmaud Arbery should be alive today. Eric Garner should be alive today. Stephon Clark, Atatiana Jefferson, Sandra Bland, they should all be alive today. So it is up to us to carry on the fight,” said Philonise Floyd, George Floyd’s brother.
Gwen Carr, the mother of Garner, who was killed by police in New York in 2014, appeared in a panel with Biden where you could see Christmas decorations hanging in the background.
One music montage, titled “Rise Up,” featured a montage of videos and images of life in America before and after Covid-19. Other montages featured voters speaking directly to the camera about their support for Biden and different issues of focus — racial injustice, election security, front-line workers, Republicans for Biden.
“What I want to see in the next president of the United States is someone who is fair, who believes in criminal justice under the law. I want him to lead us through this revolution that we’re experiencing right now,” one voter said.
“I’m absolutely sure that [Biden] is going to help us bring this country together once again,” said another.
The night focused on both Americans who will vote in November and those who won’t make it there, including a moving montage of people who have lost their lives in the pandemic. “You are the ‘we’ in we the people” was the rallying cry, and Democrats made good on it.
Winner: Michelle Obama
For a convention night that was anchored by real people throughout, former first lady Michelle Obama was the obvious choice for a keynote speaker.
Obama is well-known, relatable, and above all, empathetic. When her husband left office in 2016, she had a 64 percent approval rating. Since then, she’s gone on to have a best-selling autobiography, documentary, and podcast about her life experiences. And as she made a point of emphasizing multiple times during her speech, she is not a huge fan of politics.
Known for her signature phrase “when they go low, we go high,” Obama made it clear that four years under Trump’s presidency hasn’t changed her mantra. In fact, she said, it’s only deepened it.
“Over the past four years, a lot of people have asked me: When others are going so low, does going high still really work?” she said. “My answer? Going high is the only thing that works. Because when we go low, when we use those same tactics of degrading and dehumanizing others, we just become part of the ugly noise that’s drowning out everything else.”
Obama brought down the house during the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, when she had tens of thousands of fans cheering her on. Over 20 minutes in a far quieter setting on Monday night, she proved she’s just an effective speaker on a Zoom call as she is in an arena.
Rather than trying to replicate the fire of an in-person convention, Obama’s keynote felt like an intimate conversation with a close friend. Emitting warmth and understanding, she at times quietly pleaded with her audience to do their civic duty and vote in the November election.
“We’ve got to show up with the same level of passion and hope for Joe Biden,” she said. “We’ve got to vote early, in person if we can, we’ve got to request our mail-in ballots right now, tonight, and send them back immediately and follow up to make sure they’re received, and then make sure our friends and families do the same.”
Obama also provided an incredibly effective argument against Trump’s presidency. Rather than painting him as an authoritarian strongman as many of his critics do, she talked about him as a weak and ineffective leader.
“He has had more than enough time to prove that he can do the job, but he is clearly in over his head,” Obama said. “He cannot meet this moment. He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us.” Then, using Trump’s recent phrase in which the president glossed over the deaths of 160,000 Americans and counting, Obama added, “It is what it is.”
Winner: John Kasich’s crossroads
Robbed of the usual pageantry that a national convention provides, Democrats had to get creative. No staging was more inventive — or literal, and maybe a little silly — than John Kasich standing at an actual crossroads to make the case for Republican voters like him to support Biden over the Republican incumbent.
“America is at a crossroads. Elections represent a real choice,” the former governor said from somewhere, probably rural Ohio, to open his remarks. “As individuals and a nation, about which path we want to take when we have come to challenging times. America is at that crossroads today.”
Do you get it?
Kasich’s appearance was the subject of some controversy before the convention’s start. Why, some of the more progressive Democrats asked, are we granting precious time to a lifelong Republican at a convention for a political party with so many voters who have been energized by the politics of Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?
“There are a bunch of people out there, silent Biden voters, Republicans who want to vote for Biden or who will be voting for Biden, and it’s important to let them know they’re not alone,” Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA), one of the national co-chairs of Biden’s campaign, told reporters before the convention got underway. “There are Republican leaders that are voting for Biden [and vice presidential pick Kamala] Harris. You make sure that support is known.”
The man himself obliquely referred to the (far) other side of the aisle.
“I’m sure there are Republicans and independents who couldn’t imagine crossing over to support a Democrat. They believe he may turn sharp left and leave them behind. I don’t believe that,” Kasich said. “I know the measure of the man. Reasonable. Faithful, respectful and no one pushes Joe around.”
But in the end, it was a brief 90 seconds for Kasich and one unforgettable image, broadcast right as the major networks were starting their coverage. He set up another montage of regular people — by far the most effective surrogates for Democrats on the convention’s first night — to explain their conversion from Republican voter to Biden backer.
“Vote, America. That’s the only way to get out of this,” one man said. “Joe Biden is just the person to ensure we get our lives back to normal.”
As unofficial campaign slogans go, that seemed like something the Biden campaign would be perfectly happy with.
Loser: The “defund the police” agenda
On Sunday, elected officials and activists in Chicago held a press conference protesting the city’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot, for deploying city police to kettle, pepper spray, and beat Black Lives Matter demonstrators over the weekend. On Monday, Lightfoot was then invited to the DNC to speak about ending systemic racism. It was an awkward fit.
Earlier in the night, the DNC had DC Mayor Muriel Bowser speak to the importance of Black Lives Matter after she commissioned a BLM mural near the White House. However, like Lightfoot, Bowser has been deluged with criticism from activists, who have chastised her for creating symbolic change without championing the legislative reforms they demand — principally, defunding the police.
Crucially, a likely letdown for organizers was Biden’s language around describing the police problem. “Most cops are good,” Biden said. “But the fact is that the bad ones have to be identified, and prosecuted, and out period.”
This logic — which falls pretty close into the “bad apple” paradigm — fails to capture the fundamental issue that many Black Lives Matter activists seek to highlight. This was likely intentional on Biden’s part. He’s signaling that while he favors reform, he doesn’t agree with the “defund the police” agenda. For years, organizers have insisted the problem in American policing isn’t individual cops, but a racist political system that floods low-income and minority neighborhoods with cops and deprives them of investment.
The intellectual leaders and founding activists from Black Lives Matter and the Ferguson, Missouri, movement are political radicals. They have a robust agenda and worldview that has most recently emphasized defunding the police. Their voice, as well as their posture toward policy change, was absent in Monday’s remarks. Many people watching likely will not be bothered by the DNC’s comments on policing or the guests invited to speak on the topic. However, the young racial justice activists who care about the substance of the BLM policy agenda are left wanting.
—Aaron Ross Coleman
The Covid-19 world means seeing a lot of people in settings we’re not used to, as in, at home and in their living rooms. And it turns out not only is it fine, but it’s actually pretty nice, even in politics.
Multiple speakers on Monday evening opted to go the more traditional route for their addresses. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo spoke seated at a table, replicating the format he’s used for public addresses throughout the pandemic, including a “Today is Monday” reminder. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI) spoke from lecterns.
In some cases, it came off as a little stale and stiff.
It’s not that there’s a problem with sticking to tradition and norms, but also, these aren’t normal times. This is an entirely virtual convention, and it is a moment and an opportunity to be creative. It’s impossible to create the energy of a live audience, so why not do something different?
During the night, we saw a lot of regular people speak; as mentioned, one with a drink in hand, another with Christmas decorations in the background. And some politicians had more homey formats as well. Many of the Republican figures who spoke in support of Biden — love them or hate them — did so from the comfort of their homes.
Former first lady Michelle Obama delivered her remarks seated casually in what appeared to be her house, though she definitely had some aesthetic treatment — different camera angles, a background that was blurred. Still, it conveyed a level of intimacy as she redefined her memorable line from the 2016 convention, “When they go low, we go high.”
“Going high means unlocking the shackles of lies and mistrust with the only thing that can truly set us free: the cold, hard truth,” she said. “So let me be as honest and clear as I possibly can. Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country. 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.”
Sticking to a more formal setting went better for some than for others. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) appeared in front of stacks of lumber between flags for his native state of Vermont as he ticked off issues such as paid family leave, Medicare, and a $15 minimum wage. Sanders isn’t exactly a warm and fuzzy figure, whatever the setting, and he was one of the only figures of the night to really focus on policy.
It was a night of live politics in the Zoom world, and some of those who embraced it were rewarded. Politicians are people, after all, and dropping some of the formalities and dressings a normal convention would bring with it was an opportunity to demonstrate that.
Winner: The convention format
Even though they were holding out hope that a smaller in-person convention could happen, Democratic officials had been preparing for the possibility of an all-virtual convention since April.
The 2020 convention was supposed to be tens of thousands of delegates packed into Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum — cheering, shaking hands, hugging, dancing, and watching the balloon drop. In other words, it was every public health official’s nightmare during the coronavirus era.
With the 2020 convention going fully virtual, there was simply no way to replicate the raw energy of an in-person event. Keynote speaker Michelle Obama’s Monday speech was still captivating, but the deafening applause and cheers that marked her 2016 speech in Philadelphia were absent.
“Having 5,000 people screaming and partying, does that meet the moment?” Alex Lasry, senior vice president of the Milwaukee Bucks and an instrumental figure in bringing the DNC to the city, told Vox recently. “This is a very serious time and a very serious moment; this is something you can’t do ad hoc.”
The months of preparation resulted in a tight two hours of primetime television. It wasn’t without awkward moments: a stilted Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning, cuts to audiences clapping in tiny Zoom boxes after speeches wrapped up, and Bruce Springsteen wearily intoning the words “rise up” in between video montages.
But all in all, Democrats hammered home the message they wanted to come out of the convention: With America in chaos under Trump, they are the party of governing and responsibility. The very fact Democrats quietly planned for a virtual convention for months while Republicans tried to keep an in-person convention format until July showed this. And hearing the voices and seeing the faces of everyday Americans helped convey the humanity of those being impacted by Covid-19, systemic racism, and the economic downturn.
Under trying circumstances, Democratic officials may have made a case for doing away with in-person conventions — or at least shortening them.
Winner: Eva Longoria Baston
In a convention where everyone involved was beaming in from disparate locations, Eva Longoria Baston, the designated emcee for the night, ultimately served as a much-needed anchor.
As the evening’s host, Longoria Baston gamely kept the event moving, interviewing guests and streamlining segments throughout the two-hour program. Perhaps best known for her work as an actress and producer, including her starring role in the ABC drama Desperate Housewives, Longoria Baston also has deep ties to the Democratic Party, which were notably on display Monday.
A longstanding immigration activist, Longoria Baston has launched a number of advocacy groups including Latino Victory, an organization devoted to electing Latino lawmakers, and Momento Latino, a coalition aimed at addressing economic inequities within the Latino community. “I’ve always been politically active,” she told the Daily Beast in 2019. “I’ve been involved since Clinton ran in ’92, volunteering, going door-to-door, canvassing, phone-banking. … And coming from the state of Texas — the country of Texas, I should say — I’m definitely at the forefront.”
Why is Eva Longoria the emcee for the Democrats' convention? She's been a political activist for about a decade. She helped launch Latino Victory to get more Latinos elected to state and national public office, works to improve women's roles in Hollywood in front of and behind...— Suzanne Gamboa (@SuzGamboa) August 18, 2020
According to Democrats’ convention committee, Longoria Baston is one of four actresses who will emcee the event this week: Tracee Ellis Ross, Kerry Washington, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus will each helm one night as well.
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