You ― yes, you, a person interested enough in politics to read this article ― may have thought the second night of the 2020 Democratic National Convention was a little boring. Sure, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke, but only for 30 seconds. The roll call of different states was fun, and Jill Biden delivered an effective testimonial about her husband’s decency. But none of the speeches lived up to Michelle Obama’s powerhouse from the first night, and the keynote speech was flat compared with the stirring speeches of the past.
But right now, the Democratic Party is OK with boring. First of all, with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden holding a consistent and sizable lead over President Donald Trump in public polling, party operatives don’t see much reason to take risks of any type.
Secondly, being sort of boring isn’t a bug in the Biden campaign’s code; it’s a feature. Democrats are eager, especially since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, to contrast Biden’s steady, no-surprises approach against the chaos and incompetence of the Trump administration.
An unspoken promise of the Biden campaign is that the average American likely won’t need to worry about Biden’s press conferences or fret that his handling of a major crisis will be markedly worse than that of other national leaders.
“At a time like this, the Oval Office should be a command center. Instead, it’s a storm center. There’s only chaos,” former President Bill Clinton said of Trump in his convention speech. “If you want a president who defines the job as spending hours a day watching TV and zapping people on social media, he’s your man.”
Here are four other takeaways from the convention’s second night:
Trump is letting Biden claim the center, and Biden is taking it.
Trump, more than any national politician in living memory, has the unique ability to position himself on the wrong side of overwhelming public opinion: Think of how long it took Trump to wear a mask in public, even after surveys made it clear a coronavirus-wary public was definitively pro-mask.
In terms of Tuesday night’s convention, that meant the Biden campaign was happy to seize on Trump’s decision to alienate and repeatedly attack Sen. John McCain, and enlist the late Arizona Republican’s widow, Cindy, to testify to McCain’s long friendship with Biden. There’s plenty of reasons for progressives to dislike where McCain stood on policy ― his support for the Iraq War foremost among them ― but McCain was broadly popular with the American public and a legendary figure with cross-partisan appeal in Arizona, which could provide Biden with 11 crucial electoral votes.
The Democratic Party’s moderate wing has a bench, too.
The progressive movement’s brightest rising star in America spoke on Tuesday night when Ocasio-Cortez nominated Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for president, but the 17-person keynote that kicked off the proceedings highlighted plenty of young Democrats in step with the party’s Biden-era mainstream, led by Georgia’s Stacey Abrams.
While the format did them a disservice ― highlighting 17 politicians is essentially highlighting zero politicians ― figures like Reps. Conor Lamb (Pa.) and Colin Allred (Texas), two moderates first elected in the 2018 cycle, could be running for statewide office sooner rather than later. And Pennsylvania state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, Georgia state Rep. Sam Park and Nevada state Sen. Yvanna Cancela showed that progressives aren’t alone in building a diverse bench of young elected officials.
Calling some of the 17 speakers “moderate” is simplistic ― Birmingham, Alabama, Mayor Randall Woodfin was endorsed by Sanders in 2017, for instance, and the Trump campaign was able to find scattered reasons to name them “The Radical 17” in a press release ― but the display shows the party’s left wing can’t simply assume that future nominations in key races belong to them.
The Biden campaign will reward its allies and hold a grudge.
Of the 17 Democrats selected to jointly deliver the keynote, at least a dozen endorsed Biden during the primaries. Cancela and South Carolina state Sen. Marlon Kimpson provided boosts in early voting states, Allred traveled to Iowa to testify to Biden’s ability to win Texas, and Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried’s March endorsement helped put Sanders away in the Sunshine State.
If the keynote displayed the Biden operation’s willingness to reward his allies with attention, its decision to have Jacquelyn, a security guard at the New York Times building who had a viral moment with Biden before his meeting with the paper’s editorial board, officially nominate him for president is a symbol of how it can hold a grudge. The Biden team leaked the news to The Washington Post, the paper’s major rival. (The Times jointly endorsed Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar for president.)
“There was exponentially more moral authority in the elevator than in the conference room,” Biden spokesman Andrew Bates wrote on Twitter.
The Clintons aren’t the Clintons anymore.
In 2012, former President Bill Clinton’s speech was one of the highlights of the Democratic National Convention. Clinton, never known for brevity, was allowed to go on, and on, and on, explaining how GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s approach would wreck the economy that the Obama-Biden administration had worked to rebuild.
On Tuesday night, Clinton was limited to a simple five-minute speech, taped from his living room. Surveys taken before the convention showed barely half of Democrats were interested in hearing from Clinton or his wife, Hillary, the party’s 2016 presidential nominee.
The biggest reason Clinton has fallen from glory within the party is obvious: The allegations of sexual harassment and assault against him are intolerable for a party that has aligned itself with the Me Too movement. But it also reflects a broken contract with the party’s voters, who were largely willing to put up with the infinite storms of drama surrounding the Clintons as long as Bill and Hillary kept winning elections. That agreement ended with Hillary’s 2016 loss to Trump.
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