It was a night steeped in history — a celebration of diversity where the nation’s first Black president set the stage for the first Black woman and first Asian American to appear on a presidential ticket.
The third night of the Democratic National Convention, though, was really about the urgency of the present moment — and not letting the party’s feelings now fade. It was an acknowledgment that, for all the self-congratulatory tributes and gauzy messaging a convention makes possible, Democrats’ visions of the future matter almost not at all if they don’t defeat President Donald Trump.
That has become the true theme of this convention — a theme that has grown, if virtually, as the week has gone on and the Democrats’ bigger stars have spoken.
“Donald Trump’s failure of leadership has cost lives and livelihoods,” Sen. Kamala Harris said, in accepting the spot on former Vice President Joe Biden’s ticket. “We’re at an inflection point. The constant chaos leaves us adrift. The incompetence makes us feel afraid. The callousness makes us feel alone.”
Former President Barack Obama used a backdrop featuring a copy of the Constitution in Philadelphia to argue that democracy itself is at stake if his successor wins a second term – as stark a warning as any member of the presidents’ club has ever issued about the current occupant of the Oval Office.
“Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t,” the former president said, in a measured tone that belied how stunning his actual words were. “The consequences of that failure are severe.”
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — who lost to Trump four years ago despite winning the popular vote — warned that Trump could “sneak or steal his way to victory.” She said the nation won’t get a third chance if it elects Trump twice.
“Remember back in 2016 when Trump asked, ‘What do you have to lose?’ Well, now we know: our health, our jobs, even our lives,” Clinton said.
Few would begrudge these Democrats in particular from airing strong views on Trump. The president has derided Harris as a “madwoman,” “nasty” and a “phony”; has said Obama is guilty of unspecified felonies, based on falsehoods, and is to blame for all manner of national woes; and continues to mock women he calls “Crooked Hillary” and “Pocahontas.”
Yet placing Trump at the center of the campaign is a gamble some Democrats had hoped to avoid. There are well-earned concerns that playing Trump’s game probably means losing at it, since he’s willing to throw out any rules along the way.
The president’s all-caps Twitter broadsides Wednesday night suggested that he was indeed watching. Still, these were not the speeches that any of the Democrats speaking Wednesday expected to give — and the COVID-19 crisis was only a part of the scrambled expectations.
Harris once hoped to accept the presidential nomination at this convention. Obama imagined a post-presidency where he could build on the lofty optimism of his first convention speech, when he famously saw beyond “red” and “blue” Americas by relying on “the audacity of hope” back in 2004.
Clinton had hoped to be on her way to a second term as president by now. In that world, it’s likely that Biden would be in political retirement, enjoying the family we’ve heard so much about this week.
In this upended real world, though, Democrats sense the urgency of the coming months — and they feel it more than anything else because of Trump. Their challenge now will be to keep those sentiments front of mind, with so much else — up to and including the president — competing for attention.
Harris closed her speech by describing a future conversation with “our children and our grandchildren.”
“We will tell them, not just how we felt. We will tell them what we did,” she said.