How the DNC shows Biden has no mandate or plan
The convention was a reminder that Biden has made no promise other than to be a Trump slayer.
This week’s newsletter has a 6 to 7 minute read time:
(1) Short-form reflections on the Democratic National Convention this week, including the weaponization of grief, the increasingly clear signs that we have no idea of what Biden will do in office, and Obama’s strikingly emotional speech.
(2) Some notes on the Postal Service crisis
(3) Reading recommendations.
To new subscribers: You can check out a full archive of this newsletter here.
Notes on the convention
The DNC was a political convention that tried to shun politics
Over four nights, the Democrats hammered home the twin themes of inclusivity and human decency to argue that Joe Biden is the vessel through which voters can restore the American character and shield democracy from a potentially lethal blow. Much of that case was deployed in strikingly apolitical language. Michelle Obama said, “I hate politics” and spoke of Trump as a stain on American “goodness and the grace.” Hillary Clinton waxed poetic about Biden’s capacity for empathy.
In countless testimonials, Biden’s personal touch with family and strangers was sold as a greater asset than his legislative record in the Senate, and his experience with personal grief was framed as the portal through which he connected with profound human suffering. And in his nomination speech, Biden described himself as an “ally of the light” who would close this “chapter of American darkness.” The sum effect of this was to to frame Biden’s prospective election as a moral and spiritual choice rather than a political one.
Everyone’s invited to the Dems’ big tent — except the left
The focus on inclusivity was mainly about showcasing a concern with the status of minorities and women. The party aligned with the racial justice movement that swelled this summer, and many of the speakers were people of color and women. During the state-by-state roll call — probably the most charming and exciting segment of the convention, by my lights — a number of Native Americans figured prominently in the proceedings. (One possible exception: the appeal to Latino identity and voters was less salient than I expected, and the absence of the charismatic former 2020 contender Julián Castro was genuinely surprising.)
The Dems’ big tent was also GOP-friendly. There were several Republicans invited for prominent speaking slots, including and union-bashing and anti-abortion former Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Iraq War architect Colin Powell.
Even unabashed enemies of the democratic process had a spot reserved for them: Michael Bloomberg, a wooden orator whose billion-dollar attempt to purchase the nomination was an obscene mark on the primary race, received a whole five minutes to speak. (Side note: the Democratic Party hasn’t received the payday they hoped for despite bending over backwards to give him at least one debate appearance.)
But the left was given no serious welcome. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the most recognizable Democrats in America and an electrifying speaker, was allowed merely 90 seconds to speak and articulate a more left-wing vision of the future. Bernie Sanders received a fairly prominent slot, but the purpose of his remarks was to convince the left to vote for Biden. There wasn’t much else: no prominent left-wing organizers, major labor leaders, or other members of AOC’s left-wing bloc in Congress (who also would have fulfilled the Dems’ ambition to highlight women and people of color). On the second night of the convention, the 17-person keynote montage meant to highlight the next generation of leaders included plenty of obscurities and no Sanders backers.
The DNC revealed a theory of winning the election that was consonant with Biden’s campaign focus and the Dems’ 2018 midterm strategy: hew to the center; mobilize Black voters and women; win over disaffected Republicans.
Whether the imperative to remove Trump from office remains enough to mobilize young progressive voters in big numbers remains to be seen. But it sure seems like the party doesn’t seem too concerned about it.
The party is giving no policy mandate to Biden
There were criticisms among some political analysts that the convention was light on policy details. That didn’t really strike me as a problem per se: the presidential candidates discussed 2020 policies for nearly two years, and the general election debates will allow for more sparring on policy. Conventions are fundamentally about firing up the base, reaching out to less engaged voters, and rehearsing a general election pitch to swing voters who tend to be low-information — and don’t use policy minutiae as a heuristic for determining their preferred candidate.
But combined with the fact that Biden’s campaign was so light on policy, it’s becoming increasingly clear that we don’t have much of a sense of what a Biden presidency would actually look like. And that bodes poorly for those hoping for sweeping change.
The problem isn’t that that Biden doesn’t have some detailed policy proposals online — he does. The problem is that there’s not much evidence that Biden cares about them, or that the Democratic electorate who helped him secure the nomination cares about them, or even knows about them.
Biden’s pitch for the presidency was based on one idea alone: that he was the only guaranteed Trump-slayer in the race. The primaries demonstrated that most Democrats bought that pitch. But where does that leave us when considering what he’d do in the White house?
Part of the reason politicians and parties really do try to follow through on their policy pledges is because of voter and donor expectations that emerge after candidates make promises. But Biden hasn’t made any very obvious or highly salient policy commitments. As someone who promised wealthy donors that “nothing will fundamentally change” other than Trump leaving office, his policies have been more of an afterthought handled by advisers and fueled by pressure from interest groups.
Even on the hottest policy issue of the primary season — healthcare — there were no clear signals at the DNC this week that Biden is firmly committed to the incremental (but still hugely important) public option reform that he’s discussed in the past. Neither Sanders nor Biden mentioned the policy in their main speeches. Instead what we learned at the convention is that a lot of people think Biden is a nice guy and probably not racist.
There is no signature Biden policy, there’s just a signature political sensibility — a distinct knack for schmoozing. Biden isn’t really interested in reading policy memos as much as he’s interested in reading the energy of the room.
If he were to win, what would that energy look like? Reports keep coming out that in light of the coronavirus crisis and the recession, Biden is eyeing the most ambitious presidency since FDR. But Biden’s only mandate, the only thing he’s promised to do, the only thing the party’s most reliable blocs of voters have demanded of him, is to oust Trump. What happens if Dems don’t win back the Senate? Or, even if they do, they choose to keep the filibuster intact, limiting their ability to pursue any ambitious legislation? (His campaign has not committed to doing away with the filibuster.)
A Republican-controlled or influenced Senate would ultimately have a lot more leverage over Biden than the left, which is growing in prominence but still institutionally weak and lacking a serious presence in Congress. My sense is we might be in for round two of a Democrat inheriting a historic crisis and squandering opportunities for once-in-a-generation changes to the American social contract.
Assuming that the Postal Service crisis doesn’t end up disenfranchising millions, a great deal of polling data suggests Biden and the Democrats could potentially be positioned for a landslide. But it’s unclear what Biden would do when the dust settles.
The rehabilitation of the Iraq War
The big theme of the second night that received little attention in the press: the rehabilitation of the Iraq War and a promise to return to aggressive foreign policy. Colin Powell, John Kerry, and John McCain (whose friendship with Biden before he died was described in detail by his widow Cindy at the convention) all figured very prominently in the ceremonies, and there was tough talk of standing up to adversaries and spreading democracy around the world.
Colin Powell, who lied extensively to help lead the US into the Iraq War, was given about 2 and a half minutes to talk. AOC, the sole voice calling for the nation to fundamentally "reimagine" foreign policy, only had time for a sentence or two on the topic given her 90 seconds.
(Kerry is not an archetypal foreign policy hawk, but he is an interventionist; his criticism of the Iraq War — which he voted for — was limited in scope.)
Kerry’s and Powell’s speeches aren't going to move a lot of Democratic voters, but they do signal to hawks, Republican donors and super PACs, and nostalgics for “normality” that there will be bipartisan consensus on a more consistently assertive international posture and expansionist foreign policy once again after the Trump era.
Obama possessed a unique kind of energy
I’d describe nearly every major speaker’s speech at the DNC as thoroughly competent. The bar was low for Biden, and he met it.
The only speech that really stood out to me was Barack Obama’s, both because it was well-crafted and due to the emotional undertones. Obama is always restrained, but his plea for citizen action was suffused with melancholy, rage, desperation. His spirited defense of American democracy at an existential crossroads might be the most Lincolnian moment of his career. I also think that his direct address to young antiracist protestors as “the missing ingredient” was probably the most compelling appeal to young voters at the convention.
Given the mood that underpinned his remarks and his introspective tendencies, I must say I am deeply curious how he’s thinking back on his presidency these days …
In case you missed my fascinating, troubling, and occasionally-comforting interview with Amherst legal scholar Lawrence Douglas, here’s a thread I did fleshing out some of its key implications when thinking about the USPS crisis. Click through to see the whole series of tweets:
The chair of a local Democratic Party committee in Virginia wrote to me to share some concerns about how the party is struggling to settle on a voter mobilization strategy. After spending so much time encouraging mail-in ballots, some are now terrified that it could backfire given Trump’s assault on the USPS. Here’s an excerpt of his note:
Since the pandemic started, we have been devoting time and resources into pushing for vote-by-mail, including sending out vote-by-mail flyers to Democratic voters in our precincts with the least participation in absentee voting (we sent 5,000 flyers to various households). Beyond that, the County party has spent months on a plan, and Democratic activists have been lobbying the legislature to expand vote-by-mail in the special session.
Now, of course, everyone is freaking out about the sanctity of vote by mail. Should we really vote by mail? Should everybody return their votes to drop boxes? Should we abandon vote by mail plans? Even if Donald Trump did nothing to actually delay or harm vote-by-mail, the constant insinuations and plans have been enough to throw the populace's understanding of the election into chaos. Again, we're talking about the most committed, over-the-top, politico Democrats here at the local level who now are freaking out. For what it's worth, I've always believed in an all of the above strategy, and I wouldn't tell people NOT to vote by mail, I'd just tell them to mail things in early!) The damage to our democracy is so extreme that the parties most committed to democratic participation can't even seem to figure out what that should look like.
A couple of quick news stories I did on the issue for Vox:
The White House says USPS isn’t removing mail-sorting machines. Postal workers say it is.
The US Postal Service warned 46 states and Washington, DC that tens of millions of voters could effectively be disenfranchised because their mail-in ballots might not be processed speedily enough for November’s elections — even if voters follow all their state’s election rules. Steve Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas called the new “a five-alarm fire.”
What I’m reading
Image of the week:
The Democratic platform, explained.
William Faulkner’s Southern guilt.
The country that was built to fall apart: Why secession, separatism, and disunion are the most American of values.
Coetzee’s radical masterpiece.
Biden must ditch bipartisanship.
Black Like Kamala: Republican efforts to deny Senator Harris’s identity as an African-American and turn her into a noncitizen are destined to fail.
In prison, learning magic by mail.
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