MILWAUKEE, Wis. (CN) — The Democratic Party sought to summon “We the People” Monday night as it kicked off its stripped down virtual convention in Milwaukee amid a nationwide reckoning over racial injustice, partisan tribalism and economic and civic turmoil spurred by the unrelenting Covid-19 pandemic.
Former first lady Michelle Obama, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and other speakers led the charge at the mostly-virtual convention.
First planned as a traditional spectacle expected to draw more than 50,000 visitors to the Badger State Aug. 17-20, the Democratic National Convention is now featuring most speakers beamed in remotely due to the pandemic, with a limited number of events broadcast from downtown Milwaukee in the Wisconsin Center, the smaller venue organizers settled for after downsizing and postponing the event in June.
After a choir of children sang the National Anthem and U.S. Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi officially gaveled in the convention — both the first in a series of previously recorded segments — U.S. Representative Gwen Moore, who represents the 4th Congressional District encompassing Milwaukee, welcomed virtual convention goers to the City of Festivals.
“Tonight, we are gathered to reclaim the soul of America,” Moore said, calling for a united front behind nominee to-be Joe Biden and his vice presidential pick, California Senator Kamala Harris.
In Monday evening’s keynote address, Michelle Obama painted a remorseful picture of a divided, distressed America beset by multiple crises that have turned the country topside down, including the dual pandemics of systemic racial violence and a virus whose exponential spread has upended everyday life in the nation.
Obama regretfully found that “whenever we look to this White House for some leadership or consolation or any semblance of steadiness, what we get instead is chaos, division, and a total and utter lack of empathy.”
Empathy was a touchstone for the former first lady, a value she felt was in tragically short supply in President Donald Trump’s America, saying that “kids in this country are seeing what happens when we stop requiring empathy of one another.”
Obama took the president to task for presiding over “a nation that’s underperforming not simply on matters of policy but on matters of character,” which she called infuriating considering “the goodness and the grace that is out there in households and neighborhoods all across the nation.”
She ended her speech by calling engaged voters everywhere to action, saying “if we want to able to look our children in the eye after this election, we have got to reassert our place in American history.”
Sanders spoke just before Obama, at times directly addressing his ardent supporters to illuminate opportunities for compromise and unity in the Democratic Party between his leftward vision and the more moderate platform of his old Senate colleague and occasional sparring partner, former Vice President Joe Biden.
The Vermont senator’s view of the nation was a dire one, owing to a president who is “leading us down the path of authoritarianism” and trafficking in greed, oligarchy and bigotry as opposed to justice, love and compassion, all while failing to address the virus that has infected more than 5 million Americans while claiming 170,000 plus lives and counting.
“Nero fiddled while Rome burned,” Sanders said. “Trump golfed.”
He nodded to the work he and his supporters have done making ideas that once seemed to be fringe modern and mainstream, pointing to Biden’s support for a $15 minimum wage, easier access to unions, creating 12 weeks of paid family leave and transitioning to 100% clean energy over the next 15 years. The senator, whose own presidential aspirations seem to be behind him after two failed runs at office, conceded that although the two have different ideas of how to get there, he and Biden both see universal health care as the end goal.
Sanders said unequivocally that “this election is the most important in the modern history of this country” and encouraged those watching to come together against Trump in electing Biden and Harris into office, declaring that “the price of failure is just too great to imagine.”
Multiple Republicans made unlikely appearances to denounce Trump and support Biden Monday night, illustrating the urgency across the political spectrum for a change in the nation’s chief executive.
Chief among those GOP defectors was former Ohio Governor John Kasich, who despite being a lifelong Republican considered his partisan attachment secondary to his responsibility to his country.
“Yes, there are areas where Joe and I absolutely disagree,” Kasich said. “But that’s okay because that’s America. Because whatever our differences, we respect one another as human beings, each of us searching for justice and for purpose.”
Kasich said he knew that “Joe Biden, with his experience and his wisdom and his decency, can bring us together to help us find a better way.”
Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser championed the protest movement that spread from the U.S. all over the world in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers over Memorial Day.
“But while we were peacefully protesting, Donald Trump was plotting,” Bowser said, going on to describe when Trump “stood in front of one of our most treasured houses of worship and held a Bible for a photo op,” referring to an incident in which protesters were cleared from Lafayette Square near St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington with tear gas and other riot control measures for the now infamous picture.
Shortly after that day in June, Bowser issued a directive renaming Lafayette Square — which sits only about 1,000 feet from the White House — Black Lives Matter Plaza, where she delivered her remarks from Monday night.
Members of George Floyd’s family joined the convention via video stream, invoking a moment of silence in the names of Floyd, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other Black Americans who have recently died from police violence.
Floyd’s brother Philonise implored: “when this moment ends, let’s hope we never stop saying their names.”
U.S. Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina called on a country “stepping out from the shadows of our past” to gather around the former vice president because “we need a president who sees unifying people as a requirement of the job.”
“Joe Biden is as good a man as he is a leader,” Clyburn said. “I have said before and wish to reiterate again tonight: we know Joe. But more importantly, Joe knows us.”
Kristin Urquiza, a California resident who lost her father to Covid-19, said “enough is enough” with regard to the president’s pandemic response, saying that “the coronavirus has made it clear that there are two Americas: the America that Donald Trump lives in and the America that my father died in.”
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, once considered to have been on the short list for Biden’s running mate, played on her unenviable status as a common Trump punching bag Monday night.
“I’m Gretchen Whitmer — or, as Donald Trump calls me, ‘that woman from Michigan,’” the governor said.
Whitmer joined in dunking on Trump for his haphazard pandemic response, saying “over the past few months we learned what’s essential: rising to the challenge, not denying it.”
Senator Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada was the first speaker on Monday night to blast Trump over his recent attacks on the U.S. Postal Service and the vote-by-mail system at large, which he has targeted with cutbacks and political gamesmanship in an admitted attempt to hamstring the Postal Service in order to stymie voting by mail in the November election, actions he was sued over on Monday.
“Despite what the president says, voting by mail has been a secure, proven option for decades: in 2016, 33 million Americans voted by mail,” Masto said, noting that Trump himself has requested an absentee ballot twice this year despite his public-facing skepticism of the practice as somehow inherently fraudulent.
Amber Wichowsky, professor of political science at Marquette University and director of the Marquette Democracy Lab, reacted to the wide-ranging targets of Monday night’s pleas for coalescence.
“You saw the sort of overtures to Republicans to say ‘you’re welcome in this party,’ to energize the base, and also to energize the progressive left,” the latter of which fell mostly on Sanders, someone Wichowsky expects to hear more from on the campaign trail.
Wichowsky still wondered whether the efforts to reach out to progressives will work to quell intra-party disagreement. Just over two weeks ago hundreds of Sanders delegates signed and circulated a petition saying they would boycott the Democratic platform if it did not include universal health care, but a virtual convention also did not leave room for the kind of revolt Sanders delegates staged at the 2016 Democratic convention in Philadelphia.
Michael Genovese, professor of political science and international relations at Loyola Marymount University, said in an interview Monday night that this was “clearly not your father’s political convention” but said the Democrats’ risk of presenting “kind of a polished television program” in lieu of a straightforward convention seemed to pay off.
The professor contrasted the Democratic program with the in-person campaign-style speeches Trump made at events in Wisconsin and Minnesota on Monday in tandem with the Democrats’ virtual convention, which consisted of Trump touting his individual achievements and promises as opposed to Democrats “we, we, we” message of unity.
Genovese was struck most by Obama’s speech, which he called “just devastating.”
“Like her or not, she has gravitas,” Genovese said. “She used her accumulated and earned capital tonight to talk about character and empathy. I think she did the Democrats the biggest favor of all tonight and this was not at all a surprise.”