During her keynote speech on the opening night of the 2020 Democratic National Convention, former first lady Michelle Obama delivered a bleak warning that summed up the two hours of pandemic-era programming that had come before it.
“If you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me, they can,” Obama said. “We have got to vote for Joe Biden, like our lives depend on it.”
It has become a staple at political conventions for candidates and their supporters to claim the upcoming election as “the most important of our lifetimes.” But Democrats raised the stakes to a new level Monday at the first-ever virtual version of their nominating event.
In fact, most of the evening — the video montages, the roundtables with regular people and the pretaped remarks from rising party stars — centered on two themes that made previous conventions sound Pollyannaish by comparison.
The first was the death and devastation that Democrats blame on the Trump presidency, with 170,000 killed by the coronavirus pandemic, tens of millions of jobs lost, a racial reckoning in the streets and the integrity of the upcoming election in doubt. The second was the further death and devastation they fear that Trump will unleash if he is reelected in November.
“Nero fiddled while Rome burned,” Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont said a few minutes before Obama spoke, likening the United States in 2020 to a corrupt, crumbling empire. “Trump golfs.”
With that backdrop in mind, here are four takeaways from Day 1 of the DNC:
This is the COVID-19 election
Democrats tried to talk about other issues Monday; they really did. Racial justice and Trump’s attempts to undermine the U.S Postal Service both claimed a share of the airtime. The economy got some attention, too.
But the pandemic was like a giant storm cloud casting an ominous shadow over the somewhat awkward proceedings — which only played out like the world’s most elaborate Zoom call because the pandemic had made it unsafe for Democrats to gather physically in Milwaukee.
It wasn’t just the five million U.S. COVID-19 cases, or, as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo put it, the “critical lesson” Americans have learned about “how vulnerable we are when we are divided and how many lives can be lost when our government is incompetent.”
It wasn’t just Trump’s role in the response. “My dad was a healthy 65-year-old,” said Kristin Urquiza, who wrote an op-ed about the death of her father in Arizona that went viral over the summer. “His only pre-existing condition was trusting Donald Trump, and for that he paid with his life.”
Rather, it was the threat of more death to come, because, under Trump, the “nation is still unprepared,” to quote Cuomo.
“I am very worried about what is in front of us,” said a teacher identified as “Cesar A.”
“I’m looking at the tsunami coming this winter,” added Dr. Bradley Dreifuss, a frontline emergency physician. “All of us are wondering how our system is just not going to collapse.”
“Just imagine,” said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, “if we had a national strategy.”
That argument from Democrats — that Trump can’t fix this and Biden can — is likely to define the campaign from now until Election Day.
Michelle Obama says Trump is remaking the U.S. in his image — and it’s not a pretty picture
The problem with Trump, the former first lady argued, is his “total and utter lack of empathy.”
“It’s not a hard concept to grasp. It's what we teach our children,” Obama explained. “But right now, kids in this country are seeing what happens when we stop requiring empathy of one another. They're looking around, wondering if we've been lying to them this whole time about who we are and what we truly value.”
Obama went on to paint a dark portrait of the United States today, with “people shouting in grocery stores, unwilling to wear a mask to keep us all safe”; with “people calling the police on folks minding their own business just because of the color of their skin”; with “an entitlement that says only certain people belong here, that greed is good, and winning is everything, because as long as you come out on top, it doesn't matter what happens to everyone else.”
The result, Obama said, is “a nation that's underperforming not simply on matters of policy but on matters of character.”
For her, Biden is the antidote — less because of any one policy position but because he is “a profoundly decent man.” Speaker after speaker made the same point: Trump is not “normal.” Biden is.
Bernie Sanders likens Trump to Hitler — and tells his supporters that Biden is their only chance to stop him
Biden’s chief rival for the 2020 Democratic nomination didn’t mince words when describing the threat he says Trump poses.
“Under this administration, authoritarianism has taken root in our country,” Sanders said, before evoking his Jewish relatives who died in the Holocaust. “I, and my family, and many of yours, know the insidious way authoritarianism destroys decency, democracy and humanity. As long as I am here, I will work with progressives, with moderates — and yes, with conservatives — to preserve this nation from a threat that so many of our heroes fought and died to defeat.”
The mention of moderates and conservatives was not a coincidence. Recognizing that many of his idealistic, progressive supporters have been reluctant to embrace the more moderate Biden, Sanders made sure to address them directly — and to tell them not to sit this election out or vote for a third party, but rather to cast their ballots for Biden.
“Let me take this opportunity to say a word to the millions who supported my campaign this year and in 2016,” Sanders declared. “If Donald Trump is reelected, all the progress we have made will be in jeopardy. … The price of failure is too great to imagine.”
Dems lean into diversity — and feature Republican crossover voters like Gov. John Kasich in prime time
The official theme of the evening was “We the People,” a term intended to highlight the diverse, big-tent character of the Democratic Party. There was certainly no shortage of black and brown faces on screen, especially during the first hour of programming, when Black activists and Latino paramedics went all in on pillorying Trump and praising Biden.
Yet a striking thing happened at the start of the 10 p.m. hour — the one hour of the convention that was carried by the broadcast networks. The spotlight suddenly shifted to another section of the big tent: a slew of Republicans who have broken ranks with the GOP and decided instead to back Biden. They included former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman; former eBay CEO Meg Whitman; former New York Rep. Susan Molinari; and a parade of rank-and-file Trump voters.
The most prominent among them was John Kasich, former governor of Ohio and 2016 Republican presidential runner-up, who stood at an actual fork in the road to announce that he was endorsing Biden.
“I’m sure there are Republicans and independents who couldn’t imagine crossing over to support a Democrat,” Kasich said. “They fear Joe may turn sharp left and leave them behind. I don’t believe that, because I know the measure of the man. It’s reasonable, faithful, respectful, and, you know, no one pushes Joe around.”
Kasich’s remarks were an attempt to persuade potential swing voters that Biden won’t be the “puppet of the radical left” that Trump has accused him of being. Hearing a Republican speak in the middle of a Democratic convention — and on a night focusing on diversity, no less — was a reminder of how Biden’s campaign believes the former vice president can win in November: by reaching out to people who are reconsidering the vote they cast for Trump last time around.
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