The Democratic Convention Starts Monday: What to Look For
BU professors assess campaign launch of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris
The Democratic National Convention starts Monday and it will be unlike any since political conventions debuted in 1831. Bowing to COVID-19, the party will assemble virtually, with little going on at the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee—the nominations of Joe Biden for president and his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, as well as their acceptance remarks, will all be done remotely, as delegates participate from sites across the country.
BU Today asked faculty experts in their respective fields of expertise to answer some questions about the convention. Next week, our experts will weigh in at the start of the GOP convention, which also will be mostly virtual, except for a pared-down contingent of 336 delegates who’ll gather in Charlotte, N.C., on August 24.
With Paula Austin, Lauren Mattioli, Maxwell Palmer, and Bruce Schulman
BU Today: What must Joe Biden say in his acceptance speech to advance his candidacy?
Paula Austin, College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of history and African American studies: This question depends on the audience. The Democratic Party seems mostly interested in appealing to white middle- and working-class voters, maybe even women in particular, given who overwhelmingly voted for President Trump in the last election. They continue to take for granted Black voters, but I think that has only proven possible with Black women voters—this is borne out in the last presidential and midterm elections, where many Black (progressive) women made critiques of candidates, but then showed up at the polls and voted for the common good. (This has also been true historically in terms of the work Black women did and have done to democratize voting rights generally and against voter suppression measures.) Black male voters are a differently diverse constituency, and I’m not sure, based on some of Biden’s recent missteps in speaking about Black communities as being homogeneous, that Biden will be able to nuance an acceptance speech to an actual broad, inclusive audience.
Lauren Mattioli, CAS assistant professor of political science: There isn’t anything Biden must say, and I am skeptical that this convention will be an opportunity to advance his candidacy, but there are a few rhetorical moves Biden might borrow from a group he is trying to join—Democrats who successfully challenged a Republican incumbent. From the postwar era, he only has Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter to choose from, but the experiences of each provide some guidance.
In his 1976 speech accepting the Democratic nomination, Carter reinforced his link to previous Democratic presidents, especially Kennedy and FDR. Biden will have an easy time linking himself to Obama, given his service as vice president and his continued close relationship with Obama, and should leverage that relationship to borrow some of 44’s popularity among the Democratic base.
Clinton challenged an incumbent Republican in less challenging times than our own, so his message—course correction and renewed vigor—is not applicable to Biden’s speech. Biden will have to be more aggressive, at the risk of appearing tone-deaf. However, Clinton did something in his speech that Biden should absolutely borrow: he used his life story to demonstrate his long-standing, genuine commitment to democratic ideals. Biden’s life story provides ample opportunities to do the same. Voters are already familiar with Biden’s biography, so the point wouldn’t be to introduce it, it would be to show how personal tragedies and successes will translate to an empathetic, effective presidency.
Maxwell Palmer, CAS assistant professor of political science: I expect a standard convention speech from Joe Biden: remind us of his personal background, his government experience, and his vision for the country. Given his current lead in the polls, Biden doesn’t have to do too much to advance his candidacy. However, a good speech with a strong, clear delivery may help reduce any potential concerns and media comments about his age and mental fitness for the presidency.
Bruce Schulman, CAS professor of history and William E. Huntington Professor of History: Going all the way back to when FDR invented the live, in-person acceptance speech—before 1932, nominees accepted their party’s nomination several weeks after the convention, in many cases in writing only—the first and only rule of a convention acceptance speech has been: “DO NO HARM.” In that first in-person acceptance, FDR gave his campaign and program its enduring name by promising “a new deal for the American people.” Harry Truman actually made news in 1948, and defined the campaign, when he summoned the “do-nothing” Republican Congress into special session, but acceptance speeches almost never affect races, and when they do, the impact is mostly damaging. The last time a presidential nomination acceptance speech had any impact was when Walter Mondale launched and simultaneously ended the 1984 election by promising to raise taxes.
In fact, acceptance speeches always tend to be anticlimactic. You don’t really remember those addresses, even by effective speakers like Obama, Reagan, Kennedy. Sure, convention speeches launch or hamstring political careers, but usually it’s some other speaker on one of the earlier days: Obama’s speech in 2004, Pat Buchanan’s in 1992, Jesse Jackson’s in 1988, [anti-war activist] Ron Kovic’s in 1976.
What must Harris say in her speech to introduce herself to the nation as a potential vice president?
Austin: My sense is that she will say much of what she has said already, although she has a much wider platform now. Like Barack Obama, she will put forth her distinctly “American” identity as an immigrant, and as multicultural, but she also has a very heavy—and heavily critiqued by progressives—record in criminal justice that may appeal to so many white, socially conservative people who have been on the periphery of Trump’s law-and-order dog whistles, but have not been willing to fully support him because of his blatant white supremacy.
Mattioli: Harris must walk a familiar path at which she has proven adept. She needs to emphasize the traits that distinguish her from the modal politician without collapsing voters’ perceptions of her to race and gender. What makes this speech different from those she made as a candidate, and more challenging, is that Harris has to explain why electing a 70-something white man will advance the interests of women and people of color. She, of course, is not alone in this responsibility, but she will bear a disproportionate share of it.
Harris might also use this opportunity to give Democrats a more palatable take on her experience as a prosecutor. Normally, a tough-on-crime background would serve as a major boon to a female Democrat, but skepticism of the criminal justice system is at such a level as to constitute a liability. Harris can use her speech to redirect that concern.
Palmer: Harris has a different task than Joe Biden, because she is relatively unknown to most voters. While voters know that she is the first Black woman to be nominated for vice president, many do not know anything else about her. This is an opportunity to frame her biography and experience to voters who do not know about her background, government experience in California and the US Senate, or policy positions. One thing she may need to address is her past experience as a prosecutor and California attorney general, and how that fits with her current policies on race and criminal justice. Additionally, given Biden’s age, she needs to make voters feel comfortable that she is prepared and ready to become president.
Schulman: Do No Harm is even more the rule for Harris. If anyone remembers her speech after Labor Day, that’s a bad thing [because it means it will have been controversial].
What does the platform that will be adopted by the convention tell us about the Democrats’ view of government?
Austin: While neoliberal at its heart, the BidenHarris2020 ticket has put forth a platform seemingly centered on care and fixing systemic disparities, which certainly now, as the country grapples with a pandemic and the premature death culture supported by our White House, makes sense and will be appealing to many. Since President Trump’s election, we have seen his administration and congressional members put forth policies and support practices not at all centered in an ethic of care or justice, and so the platform is a contrast to that. This kind of federal governmental responsibility has been true of the party at least since the economic crisis of the early 20th century that resulted in many of the programs we have become used to. Part of the question is, what is the role of the government in a nation with a long history of economic, racial, gender inequities, many of which are foundational to the formation of that nation and its chosen economic system? And what happens when that nation is faced with a crisis (health or otherwise) that brings many of these embedded disparities to light?
Mattioli: I think that platforms tell us less about how the Democrats view government than about how Democrats view their own coalition. In this platform and in 2016, the platform is a way of showing how the party believes it can accommodate different views.
Schulman: Almost nothing. The platform might give some hints about how the Bernie Sanders wing of the party feels about Biden’s candidacy, and how far Biden is willing to go to accommodate their concerns. But platforms have long been a form of inside baseball, directed more to internal party disputes than toward winning voters, who seldom have any idea what’s in a platform.
With conventions long ago losing their original purpose of selecting the party’s nominee, might this year’s virtual convention seal the doom of future in-person conventions, as some have advocated?
Austin: Unknowable—and because I’m a historian, I can only say we’ll have to wait to see…
Mattioli: I am reticent to make any predictions based on what happens this year. If Biden wins in the fall, Democrats will probably try to adopt the 2020 playbook as much as possible, and we could see another virtual meeting. Although conventions are a heck of a party, and missing out this year might redouble enthusiasm for an in-person gathering in 2024, even if it is smaller than in past years.
Palmer: In January, when the Democratic primary field was still large, there were several potential scenarios that could have led to the convention deciding the Democratic party’s nominee. While the convention is now not needed for that purpose, the current process for nominating presidential candidates requires that the convention be planned and able to convene if necessary. Could a virtual convention successfully choose a nominee if necessary? We have no experience with in-person conventions choosing nominees in recent decades, but brokered conventions in the past have been decided through in-person persuasion, bargaining, and speeches on the convention floor. It may be harder for delegations to be organized and persuaded in a remote convention. Ending the institution of nominating conventions would require a change to the nomination process that ensures a single winner by the end of the primaries, such as a national primary that decides the winner.
Schulman: I think not. It’s been a long time since a convention played even a minimal role in choosing a nominee. You’d have to backtrack to 1976 for the GOP and 1972 for the Democrats, and even longer since they actually decided the matter. For a long time, they have been TV performances, carefully crafted infomercials that candidates use to launch their fall campaigns. Cheering crowds, with their chanted slogans, silly hats, and pointed signs, might seem like mere props. But that’s the point; they remain important props for the TV show. Just as pro sports pump fake crowd noise into bubble games because the crowd is an important part of the show, I don’t think campaigns will give that up.
The broadcast networks will air convention events between 10 and 11 pm each of the four nights. That, plus more coverage, will be streamed on the Democratic National Convention website. Speakers include former First Lady Michelle Obama and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Monday; Jill Biden and New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (CAS’11), Tuesday; vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, Wednesday; and presidential nominee Joe Biden, Thursday.
November 7, 2020
November 7, 2020
November 7, 2020