Democrats opened the most extraordinary presidential nominating convention in recent history Monday night with a program that spanned the ideological gamut from socialists to Republicans and at times more closely resembled an online awards show than a traditional summer pageant of American democracy.
The two-hour event, truncated and conducted virtually because of the coronavirus crisis, was a vivid illustration of how widespread opposition to President Donald Trump and the still-raging pandemic have upended the country’s politics.
Kicking off a four-day conclave during which they hope to both win over moderates who are uneasy with Trump’s divisive leadership and energize liberals who are unenthusiastic about their own nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, Democrats reached for the recent past.
They showcased the leader of the left and their reigning presidential runner-up, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont; a handful of Republican defectors, including former Gov. John Kasich of Ohio; and the most popular figure from the previous administration — the former first lady, Michelle Obama.
They hailed Biden, who will formally accept his party’s nomination Thursday, and made clear their deep apprehension about the country’s future if Trump were to win a second term.
As unlikely as these political bedfellows might have been, stranger still was the spectacle of an entirely virtual convention. Trying to demonstrate more responsible leadership than the incumbent has during a national health emergency, Democrats had abandoned their plans to gather in Milwaukee and built their program entirely online.
It was far from clear Monday night whether the Democrats’ makeshift alternative to a traditional convention would generate the kind of political energy that past conclaves provided with a live broadcast of remarks before crowds roaring with enthusiasm. Oddly absent from the evening were the basic staples of convention atmospherics: applause, laughter, chanting and jeering.
The speakers appeared from different cities across the country, delivering their remarks in the fashion of the opposition party response to the State of the Union: well-written and carefully rehearsed but without the sort of audience interaction that can enhance or diminish political oratory.
Embracing rather than seeking to conceal the oddity of the event, the program began with a lighthearted montage of speakers making “Is this thing on?”-style remarks as they prepared to tape videos. That was followed by a rousing rendition of the national anthem sung by young people across the country who appeared in multiplying boxes on the screen like so many members of the Brady Bunch.
It was the first of several such interludes, breaking up sober discussions of racial justice and other subjects with brief recordings of voters talking about their political support for Biden or Americana-infused video clips with musical accompaniment.
With no arena, and no loudspeaker to introduce the presenters, Democrats turned to an emcee of sorts, actress Eva Longoria, who kept the evening moving between prerecorded and live video presentations. A lineup of political luminaries delivered remarks in rapid-fire format and only a few of them — Obama, for one, and Sanders — possessed the sheer star power to linger in the perception of the audience.
“The past four years have left us, as a nation, diminished and divided,” Longoria said at the opening of the program, alluding to the pandemic, its economic devastation and much else.
Longoria conducted brief interviews with regular voters chosen to represent different perspectives on the Trump era. Among them was a Pennsylvania farmer, Rick Telesz, who began by offering condolences to the Trump family on the death of the president’s brother, Robert Trump, over the weekend.
While in a traditional convention the presidential nominee does not speak until Thursday night, Biden made a recorded appearance Monday. He conducted a question-and-answer session — spanning just a few minutes — to discuss systemic racism with figures including Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago and Derrick Johnson, the president of the NAACP.
Sanders and Kasich, in notably different tones and styles, were set to deliver an overlapping message about setting aside political differences to beat Trump.
Kasich, appearing outdoors in what appeared to be a prerecorded segment, spoke the longest of any of the Republicans and sought to assuage his fellow party members about voting for a Democrat. “In normal times something like this probably would never happen, but these are not normal times,” he said before directly addressing the fears of some GOP voters. “They fear Joe may turn sharp left and leave them behind. I don’t believe that; no one pushes Joe around.”
Sanders, according to excerpts released before the program, said in his appeal:: “My friends, I say to you, and to everyone who supported other candidates in this primary and to those who may have voted for Donald Trump in the last election, the future of our democracy is at stake. The future of our economy is at stake. The future of our planet is at stake.”
After introductory segments, the program devoted attention to the protests against racial injustice. Appearing above the Black Lives Matter logo painted on the street across from the White House, the mayor of the District of Columbia, Muriel Bowser, recounted her anger over Trump’s deployment of federal troops against protesters this summer.
“I said ‘Enough’ for every Black and brown American who has experienced injustice,” Bowser said.
Bowser introduced an appearance by family members of George Floyd, the Black man whose death in the custody of the Minneapolis police this spring set off a national protest movement. Philonise Floyd, George Floyd’s brother, said it was “up to us to carry on the fight for justice,” naming a number of other Black men and women slain by police in recent years, including Eric Garner and Sandra Bland.
Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the senior Black Democrat in Congress, struck the same theme of national reconciliation, promising Biden would be “a president who sees unifying people as a requirement of the job.”
Since the dawn of the television age, the presidential conventions have been aimed at the millions of Americans watching the festivities from their homes, with the two parties using the gatherings to offer an uplifting case for their nominee and to savage the opposition. Those who spoke on Biden’s behalf Monday made those same appeals — but almost everything else about the nature of this event was unique.
While the presentation had the unmistakable aura of life in a pandemic, the roster of speakers had a more vintage feel — less a vision of the Democratic Party’s future than a bridge to the 20th century. There were those nearing or in their 80s: Sanders and Clyburn; three Republicans who made their names in the 1990s, Kasich, former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey and former Rep. Susan Molinari of New York; and a current governor whose name evokes conventions’ past, Andrew Cuomo of New York.
Cuomo’s remarks, however, were far less lofty than those delivered by his father, Mario Cuomo, in 1984, a rousing speech that gave him national recognition. His son focused on New York’s response to the coronavirus crisis. “Only a strong body can fight off the virus, and America’s divisions weakened it,” said Cuomo, calling Trump’s response to the pandemic “dysfunctional and incompetent.”
Perhaps the most searing critique of Trump came not from an elected official but from Kristin Urquiza, a young woman whose father, a Trump supporter, died of the coronavirus. Speaking briefly and in raw terms about her loss, Urquiza said of her father, “His only preexisting condition was trusting Donald Trump, and for that he paid with his life.”
Beyond the pandemic, Democrats sought to use the first night of the convention to highlight the breadth of support Biden enjoys, hoping to send a signal to voters across abroad range of the ideological spectrum.
In this way, Monday’s program was reminiscent of Hillary Clinton’s convention four years ago, when the party also tried to bring along its left flank but spent even more time seeking to portray Trump as an outlier far removed from the political mainstream.
The specter of a Trump presidency back then, however, was a theoretical proposition. This year, Democrats were able to lay out a more powerful indictment based on Trump’s tenure in the White House. And had Democrats nominated a more liberal candidate than the consensus-oriented Biden, they might not have been able lure former Republican office holders.
Not that every Democrat was happy that Kasich, an anti-union Republican, was allowed to speak in prime time at their convention: Some influential labor leaders complained bitterly to Biden’s senior aides about Kasich’s appearance, according to Democrats familiar with the conversations.
On a swing through the Midwest on Monday, Trump accused Democrats of representing left-wing extremism and, returning to the xenophobic themes of his first presidential campaign, argued baselessly that Biden would “overwhelm Minnesota with refugees from terror hot spots.”
Still, it is likely that there will be more Republican defections before November, including, potentially, from former members of Trump’s own administration. While no members of Trump’s Cabinet or political inner circle have backed Biden, on Monday a former senior official at the Department of Homeland Security offered a video testimonial against the president through an advocacy group, Republican Voters Against Trump.
In the video, Miles Taylor, the department’s former chief of staff, described Trump as having tried to cut off aid to wildfire victims in California because the state opposed him politically. The president, he said, has been “actively doing damage to our security.”