Democratic convention goes virtual in pandemic

Evan Halper and Mark Z. Barabak
Los Angeles Times (TNS)
In this screenshot from the DNCC's livestream of the 2020 Democratic National Convention, actress and activist Eva Longoria, left, introduces former First Lady Michelle Obama to address the virtual convention on Aug. 17, 2020.

MILWAUKEE - Democrats opened their four-day national convention Monday with relentless attacks on President Donald Trump's mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis and stoking of racial divisions, enlisting Republican defectors, Democratic rivals and ordinary Americans to broaden support for Joe Biden's presidential bid.

In an event pushed almost entirely into cyberspace by the pandemic, party leaders ripped into Trump and extolled Biden on meticulously staged online videos that were alternately poignant and awkward.

But from the opening national anthem - sung by dozens who ultimately coalesced into the U.S. flag, to the final impassioned plea by former first lady Michelle Obama - the switch from live action to online packed an emotional punch missing in traditional conventions.

"Let me be as honest and clear as I possibly can," said Obama, one of the most beloved figures in the Democratic Party. "Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country. ... He cannot meet this moment. He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us. It is what it is."

Her speech, perhaps her bluntest ever in public, contained a blistering indictment of Trump and his presidency and the example he sets for the country's disillusioned young people.

"They see our leaders labeling fellow citizens enemies of the state while emboldening white supremacists," Obama said. "They watch in horror as children are torn from their families and thrown into cages, and pepper spray and rubber bullets are used on peaceful protesters for a photo-op."

Obama called on voters to turn out in the numbers they did for Barack Obama, warning them the consequences of withholding their vote from Biden are too dire to risk. A voting rights activist, the former first lady also pilloried Trump and other Republicans for trying to suppress the vote.

"Folks who know they cannot win fair and square at the ballot box are doing everything they can to stop us from voting," she said. "They're closing down polling places in minority neighborhoods. They're purging voter rolls. They're sending people out to intimidate voters, and they're lying about the security of our ballots. These tactics are not new."

The Obama address dominated the mostly prerecorded convention that seesawed from scenes of intense emotion to more standard political fare.

Earlier, a moment of silence led by the brother of George Floyd, whose killing at the hands of Minneapolis police in May sent the nation into a tense reckoning over racial justice, came between canned speeches that TV anchors would have cut away from in past cycles, calling on pundits or reporters working the delegate crowd.

There was no escaping the scripted material for those who tuned in, including a fervid speech by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who pleaded with his followers to back Biden. But raw moments in which struggling Americans shared their stories sometimes followed mini-episodes that had the feeling of a telethon.

The party leveraged the captive audience to hammer home its theme of Trump's incompetence.

The planned four-day lineup was designed to expand the party's appeal as it makes its case that the Trump administration's response to the pandemic and economic recession has caused suffering that knows no political boundaries.

With unity as the night's theme, former Trump voters and four Republican politicians lent their voice to Biden's campaign, among them former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and the GOP's 2010 nominee for California governor, Silicon Valley executive Meg Whitman.

"Donald Trump has no clue how to run a business, let alone an economy," said Whitman, who in 2016 endorsed Hillary Clinton over her party's nominee. "For me, the choice is simple. I'm with Joe."

The marquee Republican to speak Monday, former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, acknowledged the improbability of his prerecorded appearance - which may not have gone as smoothly before a howling crowd of partisans - but said "these are not normal times."

Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, a Biden campaign co-chair, said the four Republicans were added to the Democrats' lineup to appeal to the " 'silent Biden voters,' those Republicans who feel bullied, those Republicans that feel they will be isolated if they support Biden, and that they will be picked on. This will show them they are not alone."

The inclusion of speakers from across the aisle is a time-honored party convention tradition, and so is the backlash it often triggers, in this case from progressive activists.

But Sanders, the icon of the left who spoke after the Republicans, did not join other leading progressives in protest Monday.

"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," Sanders 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 Kamala Harris as our next president and vice president.

"The price of failure is just too great to imagine," Sanders said.

He gave an unflinching endorsement to Biden, whose political moderation is troublesome to many of the Vermonter's supporters, ticking off an array of progressive policies the former vice president has committed to pursuing.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a newcomer to the national political scene whose demands for a competent virus response from Washington put her on Biden's short list of running mate prospects, joined popular New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in highlighting where Trump failed voters in his handling of the crisis.

The convention, such as it is, opens at a time of relative stability in the presidential race.

For months, polls have shown Biden ahead, both nationally and in the battleground states needed to win a majority in the Electoral College, including here in Wisconsin.

Some polls taken since last Tuesday, when he announced Harris as his running mate, have given the pair a double-digit lead over Trump, though most analysts believe the race will tighten by November.

"Don't believe the lies you're going to hear on tape," Trump said Monday in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, a visit intended to troll Biden for pulling his convention from Wisconsin.

"Who wants to listen to Michelle Obama do a taped speech?" he said, confirming he would make his own official convention speech next week from the White House, a venue he had been teasing.