Democrats appeal for unity and democracy as 2020 convention gets underway

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden introduced the breadth of his coalition to a divided America on Monday night, with progressive Democrats joining conservative Republicans and a billionaire CEO to deliver an urgent appeal for voters to unite against U.S. President Donald Trump, regardless of political ideology or party.

The unified message, outlined in excerpts of pre-recorded speeches, came before the official start of the first presidential nominating convention of the coronavirus era.

Among the speakers were Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, and former first lady Michelle Obama. 

During this president’s term, the unthinkable has become normal. He has tried to prevent people from voting, undermined the US postal service, deployed the military and fed agents against peaceful protesters,” Sanders said. 

“This is not normal and we must never treat it like it is.”

Michelle Obama

The former first lady was expected to stress Biden’s competency and character in a keynote address expected to draw sharp contrasts between the Republican incumbent seeking re-election and the man who was her husband’s two-term vice president, an adviser said.

“This election is very personal for her,” Valerie Jarrett, a longtime adviser to Barack and Michelle Obama, told The Associated Press.

The Democratic National Convention is not a convention in the traditional sense. There will be no physical gathering place, no cheering audience and no balloons. Republicans face the same challenge next week.

The Democrats’ program consists of a series of online video addresses — half of which will be prerecorded — that will play out for two hours each night until Biden formally accepts the Democratic presidential nomination in a mostly empty Delaware ballroom on Thursday.

‘This is not normal’

Sanders unleashed a scathing attack on Trump, suggesting that under him “authoritarianism has taken root in our country.”

The Vermont senator said Trump had proved incapable of controlling the coronavirus outbreak, coping with the economic fallout and addressing institutional racism in the United States and climate change threatening the globe.

“During this president’s term, the unthinkable has become normal. He has tried to prevent people from voting, undermined the U.S. postal service, deployed the military and fed agents against peaceful protesters,” he said. “This is not normal and we must never treat it like it is.”

Sanders, who finished second in the Democratic primary behind Joe Biden, struck a more optimistic tone when he thanked supporters who voted for him in 2016 and 2020 for helping to move the country “in a bold, new direction.”

He called on his backers, as well as those who supported other 2020 Democratic primary contenders or Trump four years ago, to unite behind Biden.

Racial injustice

Actor Eva Longoria hosted the first night, introducing the recorded speakers and performers. 

The family of George Floyd made an early appearance by video. One of Floyd’s brothers, Philonise, stood alongside another brother, Rodney, and praised the sweeping protests that followed their brother’s death. 

George Floyd died May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes.

“George had a giving spirit, a spirit that has shown up on streets around our nation and around the world,” he said. “People of all races, all ages, all genders, all backgrounds, peacefully protesting in the name of love and unity is a fitting legacy for our brother,”

Philonise Floyd then asked viewers to pause for a moment of silence. That was followed by a taped segment of Biden moderating a segment on racial injustice.

WATCH | Biden leads a discussion about tackling systemic racism:

A lot of Republicans will vote for Joe Biden because they’re sick of the Trump ‘circus,’ says former Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean. 8:15

The convention was originally to have taken place in July, attracted about 50,000 people to Milwaukee and injected about $250 million US into the economy of the key presidential battleground state.

It would have been the first time Milwaukee, a metropolitan area of 1.6 million, hosted a presidential nominating convention.

WATCH l Howard Dean on what might look different, what will be similar:

Former Republican governor John Kasich explains why he, a lifelong Republican, is voting for a Democrat. 3:54

Kristin Urquiza, an Arizona woman who lost her father to COVID-19, which has killed more than 170,000 Americans as of Monday evening, also spoke.

“My dad was a healthy 65-year-old,” she said. “His only pre-existing condition was trusting Donald Trump, and for that, he paid with his life.”

And Rick Telecz, a Pennsylvania farmer, warned that Trump’s trade war has had a “truly a devastating effect” on his farm before the coronavirus brought another blow with what he called “misinformation” coming from the country’s leadership.

“My biggest concern is that if these trends with this type of leadership, I will be the last generation farming this farm,” he said.

Republican supporters

Longoria later introduced what she called “some unexpected voices” including self-described “lifelong Republicans,” the former governor of New Jersey, Christine Whitman, and Susan Molinari, a former U.S. Republican representative.

They were followed by the former Republican governor of Ohio, John Kasich, who ran for president four years ago but lost the Republican nomination to Trump.

“We’re being taken down the wrong road by a president who has pitted one against the other,” he said, explaining why he chose to speak at the convention supporting Biden.

“I’m a lifelong Rep, but that attachment holds second place to my responsibility to my country.”

WATCH | Kasich: ‘In normal times, something like this would probably never happen’:

While the format has changed, the party will make history by unveiling the nation’s first female vice-presidential nominee of colour, Kamala Harris.

But some of the presentations risk being stale. Obama, for example, recorded her keynote address before Biden announced his running mate six days ago.

The speaking program also features two former presidents, two past presidential nominees, a former Republican governor, a New York ultra-billionaire and various working-class Americans.

“Nothing about 2020 has been normal. So I don’t think anyone expected that this convention would be normal either,” said Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who was under consideration to serve as Biden’s running mate and will speak at the convention.

“I hope wherever people are that they’re excited about the moment and the opportunity that lies before us.”

Michelle Obama speaks during the Democratic National Convention in 2016 in Philadelphia, Pa. This week’s affair, which had been scheduled for Milwaukee, will take place virtually due to the coronavirus. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

The online gathering comes as Democratic officials work to energize supporters behind Biden’s candidacy — not simply against Trump’s.

“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. “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.”

While Trump is a huge motivator for many Democrats, there is some concern within the party that swing voters and lower-information voters who lean Democrat aren’t locks to cast ballots for Biden this fall, especially as the pandemic creates barriers to voting.

At the same time, Trump and his allies are fighting to scare away would-be Biden-Harris backers by describing the Democrats’ 2020 ticket as the most ideologically extreme in American history.

While widely considered a political moderate — at least compared with the likes of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren — Biden has plans to implement a Medicare-like system for those who want it, sweeping environmental protections and higher taxes on the rich.

Still, Biden attracted the support of former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, who is scheduled to speak Monday. Kasich is not the only high-profile Republican featured at the convention on Monday, with former New Jersey governor Christine Whitman and current Quibi chief executive Meg Whitman, who previously led Hewlett Packard, also set to speak.

The inclusion of Kasich, who opposed abortion rights and fought labour unions while in office, rankled some progressives.

“I’m glad that John and other moderate-type Republicans understand that it is wrong to be supporting Trump,” Sanders told The Associated Press. “But what John says has nothing to do with what I will say. My speech has everything to do with the need to defeat Trump, elect Biden and move the country into a government that works for all of us and not just the 1 per cent.”

John Kasich speaks in 2018 in Westerville, Ohio, while serving as the state’s governor. Republican Kasich, who ran for president against Donald Trump in the 2016 campaign, will explain why he’s throwing his support behind Biden. (Paul Vernon/The Associated Press)

Without the opportunity for the approximately 4,800 Democratic delegates from across the country to gather 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.

Larry Cohen, a prominent rules committee member and Sanders confidant, lamented the loss of an in-person convention, but not because it limits debate.

“The key of a convention, really, is the party building that comes with 57 different delegations,” he said, noting the in-person daily meetings that would occur in hotels across a host city.

“You shape the party in those breakfast meetings, where you argue over what it means to be a Democrat in Wyoming, what does it mean in Georgia.”


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