NEW YORK (AP) — Ohio’s former Gov. John Kasich, a Republican presidential contender four years ago, joined Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, on Monday in calling for voters across the political spectrum to unite against President Donald Trump. Their urgent warning demonstrated the breadth of Joe Biden’s coalition on the opening night of the Democratic Party’s 2020 National Convention.
The message, outlined in excerpts of their prerecorded speeches, came hours before the official start of the first presidential nominating convention of the coronavirus era. The all-virtual affair is the first without a central meeting place or cheering throngs. Republicans face the same challenge next week.
“My friends, I say to you, and to everyone who supported other candidates in this primary and to those who may have voted for Donald Trump in the last election: The future of our democracy is at stake. The future of our economy is at stake. The future of our planet is at stake,” Sanders declared.
Kasich said his status as a lifelong Republican “holds second place to my responsibility to my country.”
“That’s why I’ve chosen to appear at this convention. In normal times, something like this would probably never happen, but these are not normal times,” he said.
Democrats abandoned their plans for an in-person gathering in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, because of the pandemic. And as the four-day convention begins, it’s unclear whether the program, which consists of both live speeches and prerecorded videos, can generate the same level of excitement and momentum as past gatherings.
Some of the presentations risk being stale. Former first lady Michelle Obama, for example, recorded her keynote address before Biden announced his running mate six days ago.
The unprecedented gathering will test the bonds of the diverse Biden-Harris coalition, disparate factions who have clashed in the past but are, at least for now, united by a deep desire to defeat President Donald Trump this fall.
“The theme tonight is, ‘We the People’ — not, ‘We the Democrats,’ not, ‘We the Black People,’ not, ‘We White People,’ not, ‘We Republicans,’ but ’We the People,” said Biden campaign co-chair, Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La. “There are a bunch of people out there, silent Biden voters, Republicans that want to vote for Biden or will be voting for Biden, and it’s important to let them know they’re not alone.”
The question of how difficult it will be to actually vote is also sure to get attention Monday night. Democrats and some Republicans are openly concerned that Postal Service changes will make it hard for voters to be sure their mail-in ballots are received in time and counted.
The former vice president is opening the week in a stronger position than Trump, who has struggled to expand his political coalition under the weight of his turbulent leadership and prolonged health and economic crises. But 78 days before votes are counted, history is not on Biden’s side. Just one incumbent president has been defeated in the last four decades.
Polls also suggest that Biden, a 77-year-old lifelong politician, is on the wrong end of an enthusiasm gap. His supporters consistently say they’re motivated more by opposition to Trump, who is 74, than excitement about Biden. Democrats hope to shift that dynamic beginning with the convention.
Biden will accept the nomination Thursday night in a mostly empty ballroom in his home state of Delaware. California Sen. Kamala Harris, the first Black woman on a national ticket, speaks Wednesday night.
Michelle Obama, whom Gallup determined was the nation’s most admired woman last year, described Biden as a “profoundly decent man” in a video excerpt of her remarks.
“He was a terrific vice president,” she said. “He knows what it takes to rescue an economy, beat back a pandemic and lead our country.”
Obama’s video was following a collection of elected officials and ordinary Americans that highlight extraordinary political and racial diversity.
The scheduled Monday speakers include plenty of Democratic politicians: Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, who is the highest ranking African American in Congress; New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo; Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer; Alabama Sen. Doug Jones; Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and two former presidential contenders: Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
However, there were also three high-profile Republicans featured on the convention’s opening night beyond Kasich: California businesswoman Meg Whitman, former New Jersey Gov. Christine Whitman and former New York Congresswoman Susan Molinari.
While united by their disdain for Trump, the speakers represent dramatically different visions for America.
Kasich, who speaks before Sanders, opposed abortion rights and fought labor unions while in office. Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, wants to end the private health insurance market in favor of “Medicare for All,” a plan that Biden says is too liberal.
Biden’s team also is highlighting several average Americans, such as Kristin Urquiza, who lost her father to COVID-19.
“My dad was a healthy 65-year-old. His only preexisting condition was trusting Donald Trump, and for that, he paid with his life,” she said in excerpts released by the campaign.
With no live audience, the Democrats were forced to get creative to generate a sense of enthusiasm.
The campaign is hosting drive-in viewing stations in six states, much like drive-in movies, where viewers watch on a big screen from the safety of their vehicles. There are also many online watch parties featuring celebrities and elected officials to make the experience more interactive.
It will be impossible to engage the total viewership on the first night. Broadcast TV networks plan to show the final hour each night live, cable news will show both hours and many viewers will stream the event from Biden’s website or on social media.
Trump is ensuring he’ll be a part of the political conversation.
The Republican president was making two swing-state campaign appearances on Monday, first in Minnesota and then in Wisconsin, which was to be the location for the Democrats’ convention before the coronavirus outbreak.
Trump said he had “no choice” but to campaign during the Democratic convention in order to address voters in the face of what he described as hostile news media.
“I have to work. I don’t have the time not to,” the president said on “Fox and Friends.”
Because of their overwhelming opposition to Trump, there appears to be far less tension among the Democrats’ often-competing factions heading into the 2020 convention than many predicted earlier in the year.
Even if there is leftover resentment between wings of the party, the convention’s online forum doesn’t provide an opportunity for public infighting. Key votes on the party platform already have taken place by mail ballot. The details, expected to be approved overwhelmingly, were hammered out in Zoom meetings.
Without approximately 4,800 Democratic delegates from across the country gathering on the same convention hall floor, as is tradition, the opportunity for a genuine convention debate over the direction of the party has been eliminated.
Trump tried to undermine the convention from afar earlier in the day, noting that several speeches were prerecorded.
“You want to go to a snooze? You know when you hear a speech is taped, it’s like there is nothing very exciting about it, right?” he said.
What to watch on opening night Monday:
The theme is deliberately vague, “We the People,” and the lineup doesn’t fit neatly into any box. Viewers will hear from Sen. Bernie Sanders, who finished second to Biden in the nominating contest, and Republican John Kasich, the former Ohio governor and 2016 primary rival to Trump. To underscore the gap: That’s a self-identified democratic socialist who wants a “political revolution” and a conservative Republican who was once a budget hawk in Congress and fought labor unions in the Ohio statehouse. And both will pitch for Biden.
That reflects a key reality of Biden’s candidacy: It’s always been more of a moral and competency case against Trump than about the particulars of Democrats’ policy fights. Hence his campaign pledges to “unify the country” and “restore the soul of the nation.” Yet Biden has spent the last several months trying to shore up relationships with the party’s left flank, which remains skeptical about him. He has a lengthy policy slate he touts as the most progressive of any modern Democratic nominee.
The convention’s opening night will test how seamlessly the Biden campaign can spend the next 78 days casting such a wide net across a splintered American electorate.
The Vermont senator is a two-time runner-up for the nomination but by Biden’s own admission has done as much as any losing presidential candidate to shape a major political party. Four years ago, Sanders was at the microphone to nominate Hillary Clinton on the floor in Philadelphia, but the bitterness between their camps was apparent, and it wounded her against Trump.
There’s no convention floor to have a fight on this year. No way for viewers at home to hear delegates jeering at anyone on stage they dislike or disagree with. There are other key differences: Sanders and Biden are personally more friendly to each other than Clinton and Sanders were; Biden sewed up the nomination earlier, giving Sanders less leverage this year; and, of course, Trump isn’t a hypothetical president as he was in 2016. He is the president, and Sanders has made clear that he sees 2020 as an existential election for the country.
Given all that, the question becomes how Sanders balances his own ideological fervor — which highlights distinctions between himself and Biden — with his personal affinity for the nominee and their shared mission to defeat Trump.
Obama. Not him. Her.
Perhaps any intrigue about Sanders and Kasich will fall away once the evening’s headliner, Michelle Obama, makes her case. Polls suggest the former first lady is even more popular than her broadly popular husband, who will speak Wednesday night. She managed that, in part, by steering clear of the most obvious fault lines in politics. Remember her speech in Philadelphia four years ago. “When they go low, we go high,” she said, without even mentioning the caustic Republican nominee who years before had helped drive the lie that Barack Obama wasn’t constitutionally eligible to serve as president.
Days before the convention’s opening gavel, Trump recycled the same tactic against Harris, a daughter of immigrants who is the first Black woman on a major party’s presidential ticket and is also of Asian descent. In her case, Trump said he didn’t know if she was eligible but wasn’t pursuing the matter.
Michelle Obama is uniquely positioned to talk about Democratic ticket. She knows Biden and his wife, Jill, as genuine friends from Biden’s eight years as vice president. The Obamas also know Harris well, and Michelle Obama almost certainly will speak in personal terms about what it means to see a woman of color nominated for national office.
“I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves,” she said at the 2016 convention, “and I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent Black young women, playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.”
How to watch
The convention will air from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. Eastern time. The DNC will provide the official livestream online and on its social media channels. Your Local Election Headquarters will carry that stream online and on Facebook.
CNN, C-SPAN, MSNBC and PBS will air the full two hours. ABC, CBS, Fox News Channel and NBC will air the final hour, from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. The event also will be available via Twitch, Apple TV, Roku and Amazon Fire TV.
Perez, the DNC chair, has promised an “inspiring” convention. But people must watch to be inspired, and no one knows what kind of audience will tune in. Conventions have declined in relevance for years. So, in one sense, the pandemic has given Democrats a license to experiment with what amounts to a slickly produced party infomercial. But lost are the rare big, even viral moments when a nominee, a party luminary or an up-and-comer, perhaps even veering off the teleprompter, makes a searing connection with both the party faithful in the arena and the millions watching at home.