Thursday was supposed to be the last night of the 2020 Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee.
Almost no part of that sentence turned out to be true. It was not just in Milwaukee; it was spread across videoconferencing setups in dozens of locations. It was not a convention, at least not in the sense we’re familiar with; it felt like half Zoom call, half infomercial.
But it concluded with the most important part of any party convention: a nationally televised speech by the party’s nominee. Joe Biden, who has been attending Democratic conventions since 1972 and addressing them since 1980, has had more preparation for this moment than just about any prior nominee. He overcame the bizarre circumstances, and questions about his stamina at age 77, to deliver a compelling address making a comprehensive case not just against Donald Trump but for himself.
It wasn’t just the Joe Show, though. Other 2020 contenders, from Mike Bloomberg to Cory Booker to Andrew Yang, made remarks, and the whole thing was hosted by Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
Here’s what stood out on the final night of the Democratic convention.
Winner: Joe Biden
Joe Biden delivered an excellent speech on Thursday night that stayed true to his campaign, foregrounding his leadership and reason in a time of crisis.
His address overwhelmingly focused on the coronavirus crisis and the economic recession, the issues that Americans name as their top concerns in 2020. These are also issues, particularly the economic recovery, where Democrats absolutely demolish Republicans. Republican tax cut policies are not very popular; Democratic promises to expand access to health care and raise wages are. Biden lingered on those as well, with an address squarely aimed at the persuadable voters whom the campaign sees as the key to the election.
It was a speech that made political sense. Conventions are the biggest earned media opportunity (that is, media that campaigns don’t have to pay for with ad money) until the debates, so it’s important to use that time smartly, to emphasize issues where Americans agree with the candidate, to deemphasize issues where they disagree, and to make the strongest possible persuasive case.
But conventions are also exercises in building a coalition, which can make persuasion hard. A candidate might not want to talk about, say, gun control for fear of alienating gun owners in states like Arizona or Ohio — but gun control activists are an important part of the Democratic coalition, which means you have to give the issue some airtime.
Biden and the Democratic National Convention sidestepped this problem by having surrogates and supporters do much of the work on firing up the base on issues dear to Democrats’ hearts: climate change, immigration, gun control. While Biden invoked the Charlottesville rally and the George Floyd protests, they weren’t the centerpiece of the speech. The word “police” did not even appear.
Biden made his case against Trump less on the grounds that he’s racist and more that he’s an inept and corrupt president who will take money out of your family’s pocket if reelected. “More mom-and-pop businesses will close their doors, and this time for good. Working families will struggle to get by, and yet the wealthiest 1 percent will get tens of billions of dollars in new tax breaks,” Biden warned.
“We don’t need a tax code that rewards wealth more than it rewards work,” he said later. To older adults, the most reliable voting demographic in terms of age, he promised, “If I’m your president, we’re going to protect Social Security and Medicare” — a classic Democratic appeal.
Joe Biden did not deliver a radical speech, because Joe Biden is not a radical, either in policy or in tone; as Andrew Yang noted earlier in the evening, whatever Biden endorses suddenly becomes the reasonable position. Biden’s speech made clear why he’s a politician with that particular superpower: He knows how to talk about the popular stuff (to marginal voters). That’s what he did Thursday night, and what he’ll need to do to win in November.
Winner: Anti-Trump Republicans
The 2020 Democratic National Convention had … a lot of Republicans. We saw Mike, the Republican from Rhode Island, explaining why he’s supporting Joe Biden three of the four nights. And on Thursday, we got the Big Mike: billionaire former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg, who joked, “I’ve never been much for partisan politics. I’ve supported Democrats, Republicans, and independents. Hell, I’ve actually been a Democrat, Republican, and independent.”
Biden’s campaign believes he has some crossover appeal to disaffected Republicans who are put off by President Trump. Throughout the week, the convention really bent over backward to let members of the GOP know they are more than welcome.
On Monday, former Ohio Gov. John Kasich stood at an actual crossroads (in case you didn’t get the metaphor) as he talked about his support for Biden. Colin Powell made an appearance this week, as did former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman and former California GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman.
Viewers also saw compilations of former Republican voters saying they were now on Team Biden. Thursday evening, the convention showcased 95-year-old World War II veteran Ed Good, who has been a Republican since the 1960s. He’s a member of the National Rifle Association, he said, and he voted for Trump in 2016. He’s now had a change of heart. “You’ve got to vote for Joe Biden. You have to. I don’t think we can deal with the type of person we have in the White House any longer,” he said.
Many progressives chafed at the heavy-handed overtures to Republicans. It’s not like Democrats didn’t try this in 2016, and Trump still won (at least the Electoral College). Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s single minute could have been extended if the content lost a Republican speaker or two. But quibbles over who got what speaking time aside, this facet of the convention made clear that Biden’s campaign believes his path to the White House goes through some conservative and centrist voters who are fed up with Trump.
Winner: Brayden Harrington
On Thursday, 13-year-old Brayden Harrington made a more succinct and eloquent argument to vote for Joe Biden than many former presidents and heads of states who had spoken before him.
Harrington has a stutter. For many years, so did Biden. The two bonded over this shared fact when they met at one of Biden’s campaign events during the New Hampshire primary.
“He told me that we were members of the same club. We stutter,” Harrington recalled in a pretaped video recorded at his home. “I’m just a regular kid, and in the short amount of time, Joe Biden made me more confident about something that’s bothered me my whole life.”
Harrington’s story underscored a message at the heart of Biden’s campaign: kindness over cruelty. Without even mentioning Trump’s name, Harrington drew a contrast between Biden and the Republican incumbent.
“Joe Biden cared,” Harrington said. “Imagine what he can do for all of us. Kids like me are counting on you to elect someone we can all look up to.”
From the beginning of his campaign, Biden has run on the idea of restoring America’s moral compass. In just a few minutes, Harrington was able to convey that feeling better than any campaign slogan.
Loser: The courts
If Biden wins, he is likely to spend more time fighting the courts than any president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Trump has filled the federal bench with some of the most reactionary judges to serve on the bench since the Roosevelt presidency, including two Supreme Court justices. All five members of the Court’s Republican majority have signaled they plan to strip the executive branch of much of its power to regulate. And any major legislation enacted by a Democratic Congress is likely to run into immediate roadblocks in the courts, as with the never-ending stream of lawsuits attacking Obamacare.
Yet the courts received almost no mention across four days of the DNC (Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer did mention the Supreme Court in his brief appearance).
There’s a widespread perception that the topic of judicial appointments favors Republicans. Certainly many of the GOP’s top leaders believe that’s true. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell once claimed that “the single biggest issue that brought nine out of 10 Republican voters home to Donald Trump, just like nine out of 10 voted for Mitt Romney, was the Supreme Court.”
But Republicans are willing to march to the polls to shape the judiciary because the courts play such a central role in the GOP’s pitch to its voters. If Democrats are unwilling to make the case for a judiciary that respects equal rights and liberal democracy, then they are unlikely to have one.
Loser: Tonal consistency
A party convention is, by definition, political theater. Parties want to tell a story, convey a mood, hammer home a message. The Democratic National Convention had been going smoothly through its first three nights but faltered somewhat on its final night.
Hosted by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the night oscillated awkwardly between the urgent mood of the previous nights and scripted zingers that fell flat in a studio with no live audience. Early in the evening, the convention aired a highly effective package on the nominee’s religious faith. “It’s important because it gives me some reason to have hope and purpose,” Biden said before the feed cut back to Louis-Dreyfus.
Louis-Dreyfus, rather than let a powerful moment linger, jabbed at Trump.
“Just remember, Joe Biden goes to church so regularly that he doesn’t even need tear gas and a bunch of federalized troops to help him get there,” she said. Nobody laughed, because nobody was there to laugh. And some viewers were not impressed.
Meanwhile, a moving tribute to the late Rep. John Lewis was followed by a dry collegiate lecture from historian Jon Meacham. A fun segment with some of the losing Democratic candidates, hosted by a jovial Cory Booker, gave way to a typically stilted, if affably awkward, Mike Bloomberg.
Look, none of this probably matters all that much. One could argue that conventions don’t matter at all when it comes to the election results. Nobody is going to remember in November an awkward one-liner from Julia Louis-Dreyfus or Mike Bloomberg’s inexplicable fist pump to conclude his remarks.
But judged as a production, the convention’s final night fell short of the high standards the previous nights had set.
Winner: The religious left
There’s a myth that in American public life, likely stemming from the “religious right” and “Moral Majority” positioning of the modern conservative movement, that religion is an overwhelmingly or even exclusively conservative force.
Even a cursory look at (for example) the political activity of Black or Jewish communities suggests it’s a dramatic oversimplification. And the final night of the Democratic convention went out of its way to highlight the role of faith leaders in the party’s coalition, opening with a segment on Biden’s Catholicism featuring Sister Simone Campbell, Sen. Chris Coons, and a moving video of Biden speaking with a Black pastor. Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg spoke about his faith. In primetime, a rabbi reminisced about Biden visiting a prayer service.
Democrats have long been eager to prove the party isn’t (as some Republicans claim) against God — think about the way President Obama spoke about his faith — but the amount of religious rhetoric stood out.
“There was ample religious rhetoric at multiple recent Democratic conventions, including 2012 and 2016,” writes Jack Jenkins, the author of American Prophets, a recent book on the American religious left. “But this year was something else.”
Biden is a practicing Christian. Donald Trump is … well, you know. For the many Americans who find value in their faith as a source of solace and moral clarity, the contrast certainly works in Democrats’ favor.
Loser: Build Back Better
“Build Back Better” is both the name of Joe Biden’s economic policy agenda and a common refrain Democrats used at the convention. And something about it just didn’t quite work.
For one, it’s not particularly catchy, and, honestly, it’s quite difficult to say. (Former President Barack Obama modified it to “build it back better” during his speech on Wednesday night.) More broadly, the idea of “building back” speaks to what many feared about Joe Biden’s candidacy: It emphasizes the need for a return to normalcy, and not much beyond that. The addition of “better” certainly helps but doesn’t exactly pack much of a punch, either.
The cautious nature of the slogan also echoes similar issues faced by the Democratic National Convention, which got flak for failing to include more progressive speakers and offer the party an ambitious, forward-looking vision. As Vox’s Ella Nilsen has written, Biden has backed a policy platform in line with the sweeping changes pushed by FDR, but the language that he and other Democrats have used just hasn’t matched up in tone.
In the context of a party that’s looking to both defeat Trump and carve out its own future, “Build Back Better” feels far from the transformative rallying cry Democrats need.
Winner: Tammy Baldwin
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) was in the running to be Biden’s running mate — and her speech on Thursday proved why she was considered, with a speech that struck many of the themes Democrats have tried to highlight throughout the convention.
“When I was 9 years old, I got sick — really sick. I was hospitalized. But since my grandparents were the ones raising me and our family’s health plan didn’t cover grandkids, they were forced to pay out of pocket for my three-month hospital stay,” Baldwin said. “I got better. But the insurance companies didn’t. They refused to cover me at any cost because I was marked: child with a preexisting condition.”
Baldwin leveraged that to draw a broader critique of the system: “We all have stories like this. Stories about a time when the system was rigged against us, when we were counted out, left out, pushed out.” And she drew the connection to many of the issues featured at the convention: “Health care professionals who don’t have the protective gear they need. Young people whose asthma will get worse as our air quality does. Workers who are afraid of losing their jobs.”
Surveys show that Americans are most worried about the coronavirus, that Democratic voters are especially concerned about health care, and that both groups are, as always, also largely focused on the economy. Baldwin’s speech did a good job speaking to the concerns of both the Democratic base and the broader electorate.
Loser: Bruce Springsteen’s discography beyond 10 seconds of “My City of Ruins” off the 2002 LP The Rising
It is no secret that the Democratic Party loves Bruce Springsteen, and Bruce Springsteen loves the Democratic Party. His 1984 tune “No Surrender” scored John Kerry’s campaign, while Barack Obama made frequent use of 2002’s “The Rising” in his 2008 run. Springsteen is one of the greatest songwriters ever to live, and his heartfelt evocations of blue-collar, union-loving America are the definition of the sorts of voters Joe Biden hopes to attract.
Unfortunately, this year’s DNC reduced the entirety of Springsteen’s sprawling, nearly 50-year discography to 10 seconds off “My City of Ruins,” the track that closes his terrific 2002 album The Rising. Written as a paean to down-on-its-luck New Jersey, “My City of Ruins” was later turned into a beautiful tribute to a nation brought to its knees by the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
It’s a great song! It probably didn’t need to be boiled down to five seconds of Springsteen singing, “C’mon rise up! C’mon rise up!” before every new DNC segment, then another five seconds of Springsteen singing, “C’mon ri-hi-hi-hise u-hu-up,” after each segment. DNC! Joe Biden seems like he’d really love, I don’t know, “Cadillac Ranch” or something. Let’s see him dance like he’s at a wedding!