The pandemic is the only reason Democrats got away with giving Bill Clinton a coveted speaking slot at their convention. Without a crowd to boo and protest—as Bernie Sanders supporters did in 2016—the party has been able to craft a centrist charade targeted precisely at the Obama-Trump swing voters in key states they need to persuade.
The first night of the convention opened with a prayer in the name of Jesus, the National Anthem, and references to the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. President Obama spoke on Wednesday night at the Museum of the American Revolution in front of a display on the Constitution. “Embedded in that document was a North Star,” he contended.
In recent months, traditional emblems of American patriotism like the National Anthem and founding documents have fallen under attack from the left. A live, in-person crowd booing centrist favorites like Clinton and perhaps even complaining (or kneeling) during the anthem would have been bad optics for a party that clearly knows it need to focus heavily on regaining the voters it lost.
Sure, they’ve focused on guns, climate change, immigration, and other leftist pet issues. But they’ve addressed all of them in a way that reveals the party’s intention to appeal to centrists, which departs from so much of the extreme rhetoric they’ve leaned on during the entire Trump presidency, let alone the last few months. Climate change, for instance, was discussed primarily in the context of job creation.
Another tell? Vintage pictures and footage of figures like Biden and Nancy Pelosi continue rolling across our screens. In 2016, Donald Trump ran against the status quo (not unlike Obama in 2008). Now, in 2020, Democrats are building an argument that says, “We’ve been here for years!”
The bet is that voters who need to be persuaded or motivated are exhausted by perceived political chaos and want to vote for the safe choice this time around. But in an era of obvious populist discontent, “We’ve been here for years!” will smack of establishment entrenchment to a lot of voters, reminding them of all the special-interest baggage that comes with a career spent in Washington.
The strategy does, however, further reveal who Democrats are trying to please with this convention. Who’s watching nights of political infomercials in prime time? Not leftist millennials. It also reveals what message Democrats believe will persuade swing voters—opposition to Trump cloaked in patriotism, Biden’s personal character, a leftist Flight 93 Election calculation, and getting “back to better.” It’s the rollout of their strategy from now until November.
The virtual convention format is enabling Democrats to make that case without risking protest and opposition from a live, in-person audience, which may have been stacked with Sanders supporters, most of whom despise the Clintons and some of whom have no patience for those traditional emblems of American patriotism. This time around, there are no cameras to capture Susan Sarandon shaking her head in disgust at the brazen display of establishment politics.
The messaging of this DNC is not reflective of the party’s future, but a calculated attempt to channel its past, aided heavily by their ability to avoid in-person conflict.