Terry H. Schwadron
Aug. 21, 2020
After four days of a Zoom-like Democratic convention, we’ve been bathed in a warm-water message Democrats that a kinder, more decent and serious way could replace the impulsive, insulting and ineffective Donald Trump — and a desire for both intelligent talk and hope in a more inclusive America than we’re getting from this White House.
Democrats turned the problems of successfully presenting a case in pandemic times into a sometimes gauzy, sometimes slick television production wrapping actual policy goals that was just home-grown enough to reflect an American hunger for a calmer, more reasoned way. And, we can be thankful for giving us two fairly amazing, heartfelt appeals for reason and engagement from Barack and Michelle Obama, as well as some reminders from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren about the needs out there. Both a vigorous and presidential-sounding Biden and an earnest and sharp Sen. Kamala Harris did their best at describing their offerings in this time of over-stressed need.
The week provided as good a push as Biden could have wanted, and appropriately let us celebrate the historic breakthrough candidacy of Harris as vice presidential pick. One could argue with whether the tactics of inviting centrist Republican speakers and the argument of Biden as healer went too far without accounting for progressive policy leans, but for now, the emphasis was on ousting Donald Trump — and we can probably all agree that Biden’s team made No Trump a united cause.
Donald Trump could not wait for his own show next week, pushing himself daily into the news with announcement and diversions. Still, we know Trump will use his turn to tell us that our country depends on increasing division, anti-immigrant, anti-science, anti-environment, anti-abortion, anti-government regulation.
Somehow this DNC worked, despite the weirdness of actresses as television emcees, sometimes awkward transitions or odd moments of entertainment. It showed that this pandemic-induced alternative might be more effective than the traditional format.
In short, what we got from a Democratic convention was confirmation that this is a clear, sharp fight about divergent personalities, divided cultural values and actual policy debates, indeed, that this is a critical election. Unfortunately, watching did not exempt one from receiving a million separate donation request emails.
Isn’t delineation of that kind of choice the best that these otherwise silly conventions can offer?
Emotion over Taxes
The images Democrats used deliberately appealed to emotion, framing empathy as an antidote to mis-conceived tax cuts that helped only the wealthy, and inclusion as a solution to abuse in policing. That strategy sets up a strange argument over whether the kinder, gentler argument masks a turn to more progressive policy-making; Biden may think it is easier to defend decency against a regularly bullying Trump than to argue about raising some taxes.
But the finding in Obama’s soaring indictment that Donald Trump basically is incompetent and has no interest in doing the work of being president was probably the capstone of the whole week — except for the hoped-for success of Rhode Island calamari as a national appetizer and an immediate desire to embrace more of Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ humor. At the end of the day, we would not hire Trump to be our employee — why would we return him to office.
Biden’s pitch about restoring the “soul of the nation” is a comforting umbrella that seems as much about Donald Trump’s character as his policies. Biden did his best to buttress the emotional appeal with hard-core policy and planning — all of which depends on winning not only the White House, but a Senate majority as well.
There were plenty of other nice touches during the week. Kamala Harris, who mostly stayed on her family story of overcoming obstacles, managed to note that as a sharp prosecutor, she would recognize a predator anywhere, not needing to name Trump. Other former candidates, occasionally loosed as personalities, hit at familiar Trump administration shortcomings that have magnified systemic problems in health care, child-care and income inequality. That young woman from Arizona whose father died of coronavirus had the single most devastating line of the week, saying that her father had died of trust in Trump, and a boy with a stutter who reported how Biden had stopped to encourage him embodied definitely positive human qualities about the candidate.
Vigor and energy
Biden and Harris should leave the week knowing that they got all they could expect from such a virtual convention. Spirit, money and enthusiasm for their campaign is high among those who believe in it. That the convention nightly got under Trump’s skin indicates just how brittle American politics have become.
It’s easy to see how this convention serve the needs of those who already believe. It is less easy to see how they prove persuasive to others.
The political question raised by this particular convention was whether an appeal as a centrist, as Biden presented himself, works. Trump is labeling everything that Biden says as reflecting a radical left-wing socialism. To listen to this week’s partisan presentations, it seemed impossible that Trump could win for continuing his message of “darkness” over “light.”
In Trump politics, nothing is taken at face value — it is all in the labeling that he chooses to put on things. Cooperating with Russians is somehow different from colluding with Russians; investigating Russian connections is “spying” on his campaign. Tax reform doesn’t have to reduce taxes for most people. Pandemics will magically disappear, just with a presidential label.
Still, the convention showed that the best case for Biden, the oldest candidate for president in our history, a guy who often sticks his own foot in his mouth, someone with a long enough public service history to have made mistakes and who often flails trying to relate to those in younger generations, is being made by Trump.
This convention said that internal policies aside, it may be enough for all parties that Biden is not Trump.