The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A crisp opening for the Democrats, but questions remain that only Biden can answer

The control room where live feeds are managed is in operation for the first night of the virtual convention in Milwaukee.
The control room where live feeds are managed is in operation for the first night of the virtual convention in Milwaukee. (Scott Olson/Pool/Reuters)
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No one ever envisioned a political convention like the one that began on Monday night. The question for Joe Biden and his Democratic Party is whether this reimagined creation of an old-fashioned tradition will persuade people he has the vision and the capacity to deal with a devastating pandemic, an economic crisis and a reckoning on race.

That work began with the opening-night program, stylistically and substantively. Substantively, the array of speakers began to make the case against President Trump as a failed leader, described Biden as compassionate and experienced and issued appeals for unity, both within the party and across party lines. Stylistically, the production was faster-paced and slickly produced.

If Biden was looking for inspiration, Michelle Obama provided it Monday night. As the evening’s keynote speaker, the former first lady lit a spark under Democrats with an indictment of the president that was sharp-edged and passionately delivered.

It was a speech unlike any delivered by a former first lady at a political convention, one likely to get under the president’s skin as much as it cheered the virtual audience of Democrats.

She condemned Trump in blunt terms. “Whenever we look to this White House for leadership or consolation or any semblance of steadiness, what we get is chaos, division and a total and utter lack of empathy,” she said.

Reprising her line of four years ago, when she said, “When they go low, we go high,” she offered a new variation for this campaign, a rhetorical call to arms for the coming months. “Going high does not mean putting on a smile and saying nice things when confronted by viciousness and cruelty,” she said.

Ultimately, the heavy lifting this week will be left to Biden, as he seeks to deny Trump a second term.

His Thursday night acceptance speech will be the capstone of the week — the most anticipated and the most important. That is always the case at these conventions, but events have conspired to make that even more so than usual.

For the past five months, ever since the party’s nomination contest ended and the novel coronavirus forced people to stay close to home, Biden has maintained a low profile. The normally voluble politician has been, for him, quiet and low key. Though the polls suggest that has served him well, he will be expected to show much more than relative passivity, starting on Thursday.

But the first night showed that he will have many allies in the coming battle. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) enjoyed a prime speaking slot, a reward not only for the vigorous campaign he ran against Biden, but also for his willingness to set aside his policy agenda and ambitions to help rally his supporters and others to the cause of electing Biden.

He denounced Trump as a threat to the foundations of the country as he called for his supporters to rally behind Biden, even if they still have differences over policy.

“The future of our democracy is at stake,” he said. “The future of our economy is at stake. The future of our planet is at stake. We must come together, defeat Donald Trump and elect Joe Biden and [Sen.] Kamala Harris as our next president and vice president. My friends, the price of failure is just too great to imagine.”

From the other side of the political spectrum there was John Kasich, the former governor of Ohio, and three current or former Republican women — former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman, former congresswoman Susan Molinari and business executive Meg Whitman. If the Democrats can expand their electoral coalition to include disaffected Republicans and a big share of suburban women, Trump could be in for a long campaign.

“We can all see what’s going on in our country today and all the questions that are facing us, and no one person or party has all the answers,” Kasich said. “But what we do know is that we can do better than what we’ve been seeing today, for sure.”

For years, people have complained about political conventions. They lack drama. They go on too long. Too many boring speeches and silly hats and too many rich donors. The complaints have come from all quarters, whether from politicians who participate in them or millions of people who watch from their homes.

The coronavirus pandemic changed all that. What was supposed to be a boisterous gathering in Milwaukee has become something far different, with the party’s leading voices separated by hundreds or thousands of miles, a disconnected series of live and recorded speeches interspersed with voices of ordinary people across the country stitched together.

The production showed what is possible when the old ways have to be reinvented. Monday’s two hours moved swiftly. Speeches were shorter than usual. The party was able to highlight people and issues more effectively than when showing videos on a big screen in a convention hall packed with distracted delegates. The new format also brought Biden directly into his convention on its opening night, appearing in video clips from past speeches and in a colloquy on racial justice.

But the carefully scripted packaging alone will not do the whole job, not in a country suffering and disrupted as much as America in the summer of 2020. The usual politics have been forced to give way to other realities. Not that politics is unimportant. In many ways, it’s more important than ever. But whatever people have expected in their political leaders, the pandemic, the economy and the issues of racism and racial justice have raised the bar.

Trump’s handling of the pandemic alone has left the country floundering — and his political future in doubt.

Biden has been content to let the president sink of his own weight over the past few months, but there are many days until Election Day, and there is no guarantee that the state of the race will hold for that long.

The Democrats opened with a strong program on Monday. With three more nights and many prominent speakers yet to be heard from, including Bill and Hillary Clinton, Harris and Biden’s wife, Jill, the party will continue to pound the president and undergird their nominee. That is all Biden can ask, but it will be left to him, finally, to make the sale — about himself and what he would do as president.

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