Night one of the first virtual national political convention may ultimately be remembered only for Michelle Obama’s emotional criticism of Donald Trump’s character and her exhortation to vote. But the whole show was a sort of mini convention: an effort to get across the entire case for firing Donald Trump and hiring Joe Biden in a spare two hours, as though Democrats could not count on as large an audience again (as well they might not, at least until Biden’s acceptance speech Thursday night).
The result was a mixed bag of “real people” and politicians, performing on tape and live during the convention’s first 90 minutes. Democrats announced the convention’s major themes (party and national unity); they addressed the three big national challenges dominating this election year (racial justice, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the economic collapse); they contrasted Trump’s lies, cowardice, and failure with Biden’s earthy empathy and willingness to learn and adapt. Democrats will surely fill out both their critique of Trump and their positive portrait of Biden over the next three days, but they laid the foundation from the jump.
The heart of the Democrats’ message, however, came at the end with speeches from Bernie Sanders and Michelle Obama — two speakers uniquely able to convince the progressive and Black voters who stayed home or cast protest votes in 2016 that they must put on the party harness this time around.
Sanders and Obama both served up about a three-to-one mix of excoriation of Trump and positive comments about Biden. Sanders very clearly spoke to Trump’s alleged “populism”:
In 2016, Trump promised he would stand with working families. He said that he would “drain the swamp,” take on Wall Street and powerful special interests. He would protect Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid and, by the way, he would provide health care to “everybody.”
Well. None of it was true. Instead, he filled his administration with billionaires and gave trillions to the top 1 percent and large corporations. He tried to throw 32 million people off of their health insurance, eliminate protections for pre-existing conditions, and submitted budgets that proposed slashing Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security.
And then there was this altar call:
My friends, I say to you, to everyone who supported other candidates in the 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. We must come together, defeat Donald Trump and elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as our next president and vice president. My friends, the price of failure is just too great to imagine.
The standout lines in the former First Lady’s remarkable speech came near the end:
[E]nough of you know me by now. You know that I tell you exactly what I’m feeling. You know I hate politics. But you also know that I care about this nation. You know how much I care about all of our children.
So if you take one thing from my words tonight, it is this: if you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me, they can; and they will if we don’t make a change in this election. If we have any hope of ending this chaos, we have got to vote for Joe Biden like our lives depend on it.
And there was a very pointed message to Black voters that Team Trump is counting on them not to turn out, and will do everything possible to make it hard for them to vote:
[T]his is not the time to withhold our votes in protest or play games with candidates who have no chance of winning. We have got to vote like we did in 2008 and 2012. We’ve got to show up with the same level of passion and hope for Joe Biden. We’ve got to vote early, in person if we can. We’ve got to request our mail-in ballots right now, tonight, and send them back immediately and follow-up to make sure they’re received. And then, make sure our friends and families do the same.
What made Obama’s speech not just effective but memorable, though, was how she managed to give such emotion to a plea for presidential empathy:
[Our kids] see people shouting in grocery stores, unwilling to wear a mask to keep us all safe. They see people calling the police on folks minding their own business just because of the color of their skin. They see 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. And they see what happens when that lack of empathy is ginned up into outright disdain.
Since, without question, empathy is an area in which Biden has a massive advantage over the incumbent, this was an outstanding point of comparison. Obama also managed to take a famous line from her 2016 DNC speech, which has been identified with a lack of political combativeness, and gave it a new edge:
Over the past four years, a lot of people have asked me, “When others are going so low, does going high still really work?”…
[L]et’s be clear: going high does not mean putting on a smile and saying nice things when confronted by viciousness and cruelty …
And going high means unlocking the shackles of lies and mistrust with the only thing that can truly set us free: the cold hard truth.
There were other moments during the night that may have struck a chord, notably Kristin Urquiza, the daughter of a COVID-19 victim, who said: “His only preexisting condition was trusting Donald Trump.” And four years of pent-up fury at the 45th president will undoubtedly be aired many more times this week. But the table is now set for Biden to make the same case personally when this odd convention concludes on Thursday.