Illustration by Ash Ramirez of Biden at the DNC

The 2020 DNC Shows Signs That Biden May Repeat Clinton’s Loss

The campaign has adopted many of the strategies employed in 2016, even though Democrats lost. If they want a win, they need to make changes.
September 3, 2020
8 mins read

A few days prior to the 2020 Democratic National Convention (DNC), I was contacted by a reporter with The Michigan Daily — the only daily print publication in all of Washtenaw County. A nice guy and talented journalist, he asked me what I thought about Joe Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as his running mate. He informed me that he was in the process of writing a piece on how progressive students felt about the pick.

Our correspondence was short but nonetheless candid. Indeed, self-censorship has never been my strong suit. I understand the importance of optics — particularly in the political sphere — but strict adherence to norms can be soul-crushing.

I told the reporter that Harris getting the nod came as no surprise to me. In fact, I had predicted it months in advance. Harris’ appeal, from the perspective of the Democratic establishment, is quite obvious: She combines progressive — some might say “populist” — rhetoric with thoroughly centrist politics. This combination is ideal for courting key constituencies while simultaneously posing little threat to powerful special interests. Biden also previously announced that he would pick a Black woman as his running mate, and Harris checks the desired identity boxes.

The main point I tried to drill home is that the selection of Kamala Harris over more progressive choices — like Karen Bass or even Elizabeth Warren — is a sign of where the Democratic Party is headed. Progressives like Ilhan Omar, Ed Markey, Bernie Sanders and others have done what they can to move the party leftward. We are now in the midst of an aggressive counterrevolution — and this year’s DNC was proof of that.

Just look at who was invited to speak. Secretary Colin Powell, a Republican most famous for lying us into the Iraq War, was given a slot on primetime to make the case for Uncle Joe. Former governor John Kasich — a virulently anti-labor, anti-choice Republican — had a speaking slot that was more than twice as long as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic Party’s brightest young star. Many progressives were deeply upset by this snub.

“AOC is the personification of the future of the party, but the traditional Dems have always struggled to keep up, motivate and inspire,” said Natalia Salgado, Chief of Civic Engagement at The Center for Popular Democracy. “If they understood what they need to do to turn out our communities, they would have had AOC front and center.”

But Team Biden seems to be embracing a quite different strategy. Democrat Rahm Emanuel — former Chicago mayor and current media talking head — proudly proclaims, “This will be the year of the Biden Republican,” and that the campaign is right to target disaffected Republicans. Sound familiar?

This is the exact playbook Hillary Clinton ran in 2016. The campaign’s electoral approach can be summed up in Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer’s famous quote: “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” Clinton would go on to lose three out of the four states mentioned.

And the outlook for this strategy looks even worse for 2020. This year’s Gallup polls put Trump’s average approval rating among Republicans at over 91%. In other words, anti-Trump Republicans are an all but imaginary constituency.

Sure, they have some big names — Powell and Kasich are supposedly anti-Trump Republicans. And, until switching his party affiliation to Democrat, so was Bill Kristol. But do not be fooled; as demonstrated in the Gallup polls, this political tendency is by no means popular within the broader population. Right now, the Republican Party is the Trump party, and Democrats fail to reckon with this fact at their own peril.

A little over a week after my discussion with The Michigan Daily reporter, another reporter reached out to me. She informed me that she worked for “a bipartisan weekly newsletter” called Young Guns before proceeding to ask me a long list of questions, one of which concerned my thoughts on Biden’s and Harris’ DNC speeches.

As you can imagine, my critiques of each overlapped considerably. Both speeches were light on policy and heavy on platitudes. Style over substance, if you will. And perhaps this was to be expected. After all, such rhetoric — vacuous gestures at vague notions of unity — has characterized Biden’s entire campaign. And to the extent that policy is mentioned, proposals fall well short of what the Democratic base and, indeed, the country at large both desire and require. This is yet another commonality between Biden 2020 and Clinton 2016.

Once again, the Democrats lack a bold moral vision. But do not take my word for it. Read what Reverends William Barber II and Liz Theoharis, co-chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign, had to say about it in the context of economic inequality:

“We are encouraged by the Democrats’ vow to ‘​make sure the wealthy pay their fair share in taxes.’ But we are disappointed that they did not commit to bold propos­als, such as taxes on millionaire and billionaire wealth and Wall Street trades, that could generate massive revenue for reducing poverty while making our country less unequal. These agenda items are not about far left and far right, but about deciding as a nation not to leave an estimated 50% of its citizens living in poverty far and farther behind, an anathema to a genuine democracy.”

Despite his campaign’s many deficiencies, to this point, Biden maintains a strong and relatively stable lead in the polls. And for the majority who desperately want to see Trump dragged out of office, this is good news. However, as we all know, complacency is the enemy of success in politics. A lot can change between now and Nov. 3, 2020. And if the Biden campaign fails to self-correct post-DNC, that change is likely to be in Trump’s favor. If, as is said every four years, this truly is “the most important election of our lifetimes,” the Biden campaign ought to be extremely careful not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Elias Khoury, University of Michigan

Writer Profile

Elias Khoury

University of Michigan
Philosophy, Politics and Economics

Elias Khoury is an undergraduate junior at the University of Michigan. He's also on the editorial board of the Young Democratic Socialists of America's (YDSA) national publication, The Activist.

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