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The Puzzlingly Substanceless Democratic Convention

This should’ve been the perfect opportunity for Democrats to lay out their governing agenda, but it took them three days to talk about policy.

Pool / Getty Images

Barack Obama has not always been the soaring convention orator of legend.

His acceptance speech at the 2012 Democratic Convention was flat and themeless. In fact, it was Bill Clinton who saved that convention, defending Obama’s record with a fervor and a passion that Obama could never muster on his own behalf. At the time, I described Clinton’s address in Charlotte, North Carolina, as “the greatest speech ever delivered by an ex-president at a political convention.”

Until now.

Obama’s speech Wednesday night, delivered amid the pin-drop silence of a museum in Philadelphia, possessed a mournful gravity that would have been ill suited to a raucous convention hall. Waving state placards and funny hats would have been a strange counterpoint to Obama’s dire warning that the Trump “administration has shown it will tear our democracy down if that is what it takes for them to win.” 

Judging from what TV commentators playing etiquette police were saying Wednesday night, Obama supposedly destroyed a hallowed presidential tradition by directly attacking his White House successor. There certainly was nothing ambiguous in Obama charging that Donald Trump has “no interest in treating the presidency as anything but one more reality show that he could use to get the attention he craves.”

In truth, there is no secret clause in the Constitution that requires former presidents to maintain a grim silence even when democracy itself is in peril. Only in modern times, though, have former presidents felt that it is somehow unseemly to exercise their First Amendment rights in judging their successors harshly.

In 1912, while trying to resuscitate his political fortunes, Teddy Roosevelt had no problem with publicly belittling his chosen heir William Howard Taft as a “fathead” and a “puzzlewit.” (Roosevelt ran against Taft that year on the Bull Moose ticket.) 

And as Rutgers University historian David Greenberg pointed out on Wednesday night, at the 1936 Republican Convention, an embittered Herbert Hoover attacked Franklin Roosevelt. In fact, Hoover hyperbolically claimed, “The New Deal may be a revolutionary design to replace the American system with despotism.”

Harry Truman was another former president who failed to get the memo about having only nice things to say. Speaking to the 1956 Democratic Convention in Chicago, Truman warned that if Dwight Eisenhower were reelected, “the agricultural depression will have spread from the farms to the towns and cities, just as it did under Republican rule in the 1920s.”

Obama’s speech did more than criticize Trump and warble about the virtues Joe Biden would bring to the White House, though. It also marked the return of traditional oratory to the Democratic Convention.

Before Wednesday night, this convention has been strong on feelings and light on substance. Again and again, we have been reminded that Joe Biden is a good man who has endured deep suffering without losing his humanity. But rarely have we been given more than the barest hints of what he would do in office—other than, mercifully, not be Donald Trump.  Many of the pandemic improvisations over the course of the first two nights were memorable—particularly the panoramic floating roll-call vote nominating Biden. But Tuesday night, no one other than Jill Biden spoke for more than five minutes. Had Obama been asked to keep his 2004 keynote address to five minutes, it is hard to imagine the speech being a launching pad for much of anything, let alone the presidency. 

Having covered presidential conventions in person since the 1980s, I have a nostalgic streak when it comes to political speeches. Sometimes, the rhetorical excesses leave you slack-jawed, as Newt Gingrich did in 1996 when he included an ode to beach volleyball (“no bureaucrat would have invented it”) in a speech about the glories of American freedom. But traditional convention speeches also help provide a governing agenda for the out-of-power party. And it took the planners of this convention three days to inject a little substance into the proceedings.  

Hillary Clinton displayed the family gift, dating back to the 1992 campaign, of being able to succinctly conjure up policy substance: “Vote for paid family leave and health care for everyone, for Social Security, Medicare and Planned Parenthood. Vote for dreamers and their families.” Clinton also adroitly framed the issue of justice in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests in a way that could appeal to wavering suburban voters: “Vote for law enforcement purged of racial bias that keeps all our streets safe.”

Elizabeth Warren once again demonstrated her skill at using personal examples to frame ambitious policy initiatives. Having dreamed of addressing the convention as first the presidential and then the vice presidential nominee, Warren might have inwardly grumbled when she was assigned the dutiful task of outlining Biden’s agenda to “make high quality childcare affordable for every family.” Instead, Warren set up her argument by retelling the story of her Aunt Bea who rescued her from an ongoing child care crisis by announcing, “I can’t come tomorrow. But I’ll come on Thursday.”

Missing, so far, from the Democratic Convention has been a sustained effort to showcase the party’s leading Senate candidates. Sure, challengers like Sara Gideon in Maine and Jaime Harrison in South Carolina have been awarded eye blink-length cameos. But since so much of Biden’s governing agenda requires a Democratic Senate majority, it is strange that more of an effort has not been made to reduce Mitch McConnell to a minority leader.

The Democrats’ sense of staging has been mostly masterful under the most unimaginable circumstances. But a rare mistake may have been to replicate the look of a standard convention floor for Kamala Harris’s address Wednesday night. While Harris gamely proceeded with no audience feedback amid the silent flags and bunting, it inadvertently emphasized what was missing (a real convention) rather than what was there (a compelling VP candidate).  

There is a big difference between aesthetic criticism of some aspects of the virtual convention and political analysis suggesting that any of this will cost the Biden-Harris ticket votes. What the Democrats have done is shrewdly mount an innovative convention that highlights the poll-tested issues (gun safety, the environment, women’s rights, and diversity) they see as a key to victory. In short, the Democrats have proven that Donald Trump has no monopoly on reality television.