Politics

What to watch for on Day 1 of the Democratic National Convention

Key Points
  • The first night of the Democratic National Convention will be intended to showcase what a big tent Democrats have built in the age of Trump.
  • Four Republicans were given speaking slots, along with progressive all-star Sen. Bernie Sanders and a party unifier, former first lady Michelle Obama.
  • A key dynamic to watch will be whether speakers from the edges of the Democratic coalition actively embrace Joe Biden, or merely warn of the danger of re-electing President Donald Trump.
Michelle Obama waves as she appears onstage during the first session at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, July 25, 2016.
Jim Young | Reuters

WASHINGTON – Four Republicans, two popular Democratic governors, one very progressive senator and former first lady Michelle Obama will all appear on stage Monday to kick off the first all-virtual Democratic National Convention.

The goal of the evening's two-hour broadcast will be to showcase what a big tent Democrats have built in the age of Trump. To do that, they have Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist, speaking in the same hour as former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican who sought his party's presidential nomination in 2016. 

Read more: Here's the lineup for Day 1 of the DNC

They also have two Democratic governors, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Both have won praise for capably leading their states through the coronavirus crisis, and for reaching across the aisle to work with Republicans when they needed to.

Republicans for Biden

Kasich is not alone. Three more Republicans are set to address the virtual convention Monday: Former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, former Hewlett Packard CEO Meg Whitman and former New York Rep. Susan Molinari. 

Including this many members of the opposite party in a national nominating convention is virtually unheard of. But it reflects the fact that national Democrats this year see their ticket of former Vice President Joe Biden and California Sen. Kamala Harris as a natural fit for Republican voters who are either exhausted or disgusted by three years of President Donald Trump. 

"I had always been hopeful, even after the convention and after the election, that perhaps we would see a change in the president, but we just never have," Kasich told The New York Times. "I happen to think it's the soul of our country that is being damaged, and that's what I'm concerned about."

Former Ohio Governor John Kasich
John Lamparski | Getty Images

Still, there's a lot of rhetorical space between simply being "concerned" about Trump and actively endorsing Biden. This will be a key dynamic to watch for on Monday night: Whether speakers representing the edges of what Democrats hope will be their 2020 coalition are all in for Biden, or whether they're just afraid of Trump. 

Dividing lines

It's not just erstwhile Republicans whom the party will be wooing on Monday. It's also the progressives on the far left side of the proverbial tent, some of whom were disappointed last week that Biden did not choose a more traditionally progressive running mate.

For them, convention organizers are giving the nation's most visible progressive lawmaker, Sanders, a prominent platform on Monday, where he will be the second-to-last speaker of the night.

Sanders was the last Democratic primary candidate to drop out, leaving Biden as the party's presumptive nominee. While he officially endorsed Biden shortly afterwards, progressives will be looking to Sanders on Monday for a convincing argument why they should vote for Biden and Harris.

There are two ways that Sanders could use his time on Monday: He could either focus his remarks solely on Trump's flaws and failings, essentially making the case not for Biden, but for anyone else besides Trump. Or Sanders could step up and offer an affirmative endorsement of Biden and Harris because of who they are, not just because they're not Donald Trump.

Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders rallies with supporters in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, February 26, 2020.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

An affirmative speech from Sanders would be warmly welcomed by Biden and by Democratic Party leaders, who privately acknowledge that the nominee still has an enthusiasm deficit among progressives that Trump is eager to exploit. 

TRUMP TWEET 

While Trump's hyperbole may not capture exactly what's going on, there were signs Monday that Democrats still have work to do if they plan to unite the various anti-Trump factions under one banner.

Before Kasich had taken the stage, he was already getting pushback from a prominent progressive after he mentioned her in an interview: New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. 

CORTEZ TWEET

Michelle Obama's 'big picture'

If enthusiasm and unity are what Democrats need to project on Monday night, then there is no one better to do so than the night's keynote speaker: former first lady Michelle Obama.

Three years out of the White House, polls still show Obama among the most admired and respected women in America. She even wins approval among Republican women, a crucial voting bloc that Democrats hope to peel away from the president this year. 

More importantly, Obama can deliver unifying and motivating "big picture" political speeches like few others, a skill that earned her a memorable nickname during her husband's 2008 presidential run – "the closer."

On Monday afternoon, Obama released a clip of her remarks, which appear to have been pre-recorded. "I know Joe. He is a profoundly decent man guided by faith," says Obama. "He was a terrific vice president. He knows what it takes to rescue and economy, beat back a pandemic and lead our country."

"She knows how to inspire and motivate and relate with the people she's speaking with," former Obama advisor Stephanie Cutter told NPR earlier this year. "The kind of surrogacy that Michelle Obama brings is unprecedented. People don't see her as a political figure — they see her as a beloved former first lady who they completely relate with." 

If Obama brings all that to her closing speech, she could leave viewers with the feeling that Democrats are united, motivated and welcoming of all views. That would be a big win for the party as it looks to set the stage for a positive week ahead.