Now that Joe Biden has announced that he’s tapped Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate, we know the full lineup of speakers for the Democratic National Convention next week. From where I sit, the choice of Harris was inspired. It’s the rest of the convention that leaves much to be desired.
To the extent that a convention speaker list is a way for a party to highlight its priorities, the Democratic National Committee list, which was released Tuesday, shows that the Democratic Party’s priorities include shamelessly begging for the approval of moderate-Republican white men, knowing full well that nobody can hear progressives boo while locked on the other side of a Zoom presentation.
The DNC announced 34 speakers who will address the country over four nights in the lead-up to the formal nomination of Biden and Harris. On the surface, the convention contains something for everybody. Bernie Sanders leads off the speeches on Monday, and Republican John Kasich also speaks that same night. I can imagine a bunch of people at Democratic Party headquarters slapping themselves on the back about their “big tent” coup of having Sanders and Kasich speak on the same night. I can imagine the Political Optics 101 class that led them to give Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms a spot right ahead of former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg on Thursday night. I can imagine the rejected tagline for this convention: “Democrats! We Don’t Really Know What We Stand For!”
When you look at the speakers list, you’ll see that the Democrats largely got the optics right. This is a list that looks like the United States: It’s multiracial, features more women than men, and highlights the diversity of the party. But when you delve deeper, when you peer beyond the optics, what you’ll see is a party that is afraid to make an argument based on policy. It doesn’t want to fight Republicans in the trenches over the decades-long evisceration of the social safety net or the Republicans’ unwashed bigotry toward people of color and the LGBTQ community. It just wants to offer character paeans to Joe Biden and hope the country’s general disgust with Donald Trump will do the rest.
To understand why the DNC chose this list of speakers, you have to appreciate just how many people were destined to get prime speaking gigs even before any decisions were made. Fully nine of the speakers were contenders for the Democratic nomination this cycle or actual former presidents and presidential nominees. They had to speak. It’s more telling when a presidential candidate doesn’t get a slot than when one does. So I’d argue that the decision to snub Julián Castro and Andrew Yang says more about the DNC than the invitations to Elizabeth Warren or Amy Klobuchar. (After publication, and after Yang and his whole gang complained, the DNC announced it was adding Yang to their slate of speakers.)
The speaker of the House, the Senate minority leader, vice presidential nominee Harris, the convention chairman Bennie Thompson, former first lady Michelle Obama, and Dr. Jill Biden were also locks to speak. And I would have been shocked white if South Carolina Representative Jim Clyburn, who basically won the primary for Biden, didn’t get a speaking slot. And of course, there’s Biden himself. That means that of the 34 speakers announced, only 17 slots were up for grabs in any real way.
Of those 17 discretionary slots, you can only really call Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and, possibly, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms “progressive”—and they’re giving AOC only 60 seconds. I don’t know how many curse words about Tom Perez you can fit into 60 seconds, but I hope she tries to find out. Wisconsin Representative and Congressional Black Caucus whip Gwen Moore was also a really good choice. But Biden and the DNC went very centrist and safe with the rest of their choices. Biden’s Delaware fam (Senator Chris Coons and Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester) are not in the liberal vanguard of the party. Veepstakes runners-up Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Senator Tammy Duckworth represent smart, tough, left-of-center voices, but they don’t bring progressive domestic or foreign policies that inspire the base. And the only reason for both Kasich and Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers even to be at the podium is to double down on a Midwestern strategy that seeks to flip white Trump voters in Green Bay instead of turning out nonwhite Obama voters in Milwaukee.
The Democrats could have opted to make a different policy case—which is to say, any policy case at all—at this convention. Instead of promoting Kasich, the DNC could have given Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown a prime-time speaking slot. Brown has the kind of policies that win over Midwestern voters, with none of the anti-woman stench that John Kasich brings. Instead of promoting centrist senators who are already in office, like Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin, the DNC might have highlighted some of the party’s senatorial candidates whose victories are crucial to getting actual Democratic policies through the Senate. Why aren’t we hearing from Jamie Harrison, who is fighting Lindsey Graham in South Carolina? Why aren’t we hearing from Sara Gideon, who is trying to beat Susan Collins in Maine? If we simply must hear from a Democrat with a military background and an aggressive foreign policy stance, why go with Duckworth over Amy McGrath, who could defeat Mitch McConnell and end an entire era of Senate obstructionism?
Instead of Harrison or Gideon or any of the others, the DNC gave a slot to sitting Alabama Senator Doug Jones. I assume Goose from Top Gun was not available.
Even if “policy” is not your thing, even if, for some reason, you don’t think winning back the Senate is absolutely crucial to the Democratic Party, this DNC speaker slate all but ignores the two massive issues roiling our country at the moment.
As you might have noticed, we are still in the middle of a pandemic. The president’s incompetence in handling the crisis is a major concern for voters in this election. But where is “Covid Night”? Governors Andrew Cuomo of New York and Gavin Newsome of California, who’ve both been busy dealing with the coronavirus crisis these past five months, have been invited to speak. Newsome is probably there primarily to serve as a Harris validator; the California governor and California senator are thought to be close. I imagine Cuomo will have something to say about the response to the coronavirus and the lack of federal support. But why isn’t the DNC putting up an actual public health expert to counter the daily misinformation briefings from Donald Trump? Why isn’t Ron Klain, Obama’s Ebola czar, speaking to this convention? Why isn’t Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, speaking? Don’t you think she might have a useful counter to Donald Trump’s contention that “children are immune” to Covid-19?
Oh, but we shouldn’t “politicize” the pandemic response? Fine. But then what is the DNC’s excuse for not giving the Black Lives Matter protests as much airtime as possible? People have risked brutality and death to protest in the streets over these past few months. But, aside from Lance Bottoms, none of the DNC speakers have been all that close to what’s happening on the ground. Missouri congressional candidate Cori Bush couldn’t get a spot? What about Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler—wouldn’t he have been a more interesting moderate white man to hear from in this moment? Out of all of this prime-time coverage, the DNC couldn’t find 30 minutes to give to an activist like Alicia Garza or a moral voice like the Rev. William Barber II, but did find time for former acting attorney general Sally Yates?
When you look at what the Democrats could have done, versus what they actually did, it’s almost surprising the DNC decided to hold a convention at all. Clearly, the DNC doesn’t want to do anything or say anything other than “Joe Biden is not a corrupt, incompetent bigot like the other guy.” They don’t need a “convention” to say that. Just throw up some Lincoln Project ads and go home, if that’s all they’re going to do with this thing.
Who knows? Maybe that’s enough to win this election. Maybe the strategy of cajoling the aggrieved white man while trusting nonwhite voters and women to do their duty will pay off in the end. This is a slate of Democratic convention speakers that Jonathan Chait and S.E. Cupp will be thrilled with.
The DNC wants to fight this election in the head space of three white guys whose autumn has been ruined because Big Ten football was canceled. This convention reflects those priorities. Maybe I should just save myself the trouble of watching it and put myself in a medically induced coma until November 3. All the DNC wants from people like me is to shut up and vote without spooking the John Kasich stans.