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Takeaways from the Democratic National Convention

Recapping DNC night 4
Recapping DNC night 4 22:02

The shorthand for this year's Democratic National Convention was that it was the "unconventional convention," a description that actually undersold the fact that it was unlike any that preceded it. By mid-May, the party had begun to lay the groundwork for a virtual convention, amid doubts that the coronavirus would be eradicated or under control by August. 

On his third try for the presidency, Joe Biden accepted the Democratic nomination alone at a podium in a silent room. But he was elevated by heartfelt praise from not only the party's biggest stars and his family and friends, but the everyday Americans he encountered over 50 years in public life and stopped to listen to, advise or console.

Here are a few key takeaways from the convention:

Conventions can be held virtually

Democrats were the guinea pigs for something that had never been done before — holding a nominating convention entirely remotely.

With only minor hiccups, the Democratic National Committee proved that a convention can be held virtually. And it even allows for other elements: Seeing delegates in their home states turned out to be a welcome — even preferred — innovation over the traditional roll call vote on the convention floor.

There were small flaws — audio crossovers and awkward pauses — but they were minor, considering the ambitious nature of the undertaking. 

Republicans, who concluded later in the summer that they, too, would be forced to hold a remote convention, have just a couple of days to implement any last-minute lessons from what they saw this week. 

In the future, it will be interesting to see if parties continue to pour millions of dollars into physical conventions or opt for the less pricey route of hybrid gatherings. 

Obama's rebuke of President Trump

On the convention's third night, former President Obama delivered a blistering speech that may have been the strongest rebuke of a sitting president by his predecessor in modern history. The 44th president has rarely criticized the 45th by name, but he didn't hesitate to invoke his own experience in the office to denounce President Trump by name. 

"I have sat in the Oval Office with both of the men who are running for president. I never expected that my successor would embrace my vision or continue my policies. I did hope, for the sake of our country, that Donald Trump might show some interest in taking the job seriously; that he might come to feel the weight of the office and discover some reverence for the democracy that had been placed in his care," Mr. Obama said. "But he never did."

He continued, "For close to four years now, he's shown no interest in putting in the work; no interest in finding common ground; no interest in using the awesome power of his office to help anyone but himself and his friends; no interest in treating the presidency as anything but one more reality show that he can use to get the attention he craves."

While Mr. Obama spoke, Mr. Trump was tweeting at him in all caps. 

"Donald Trump hasn't grown into the job because he can't," Mr. Obama said. "And the consequences of that failure are severe."

Civilian standouts

Many of the most powerful speeches of the convention were delivered not by practiced politicians, but by everyday Americans.

Kristin Urquiza told the story of her 65-year-old father, a Trump supporter who died this summer after a weeks-long battle with coronavirus. She slammed the president for his response to the virus in her speech on Monday.

"His only pre-existing condition was trusting Donald Trump, and for that, he paid with his life," Urquiza said. "The coronavirus has made it clear that there are two Americas: the America that Donald Trump lives in and the America that my father died in."

Jacquelyn Brittany, a security officer at the New York Times building in New York, formally nominated Biden for president. Brittany met Biden when he was at the Times for an editorial board meeting, and her encounter with him went viral. 

Former Representative Gabrielle Giffords was a star in the Democratic Party whose political career was cut short when she was shot point blank in the head in a mass shooting that claimed the lives of six people in January 2011. She suffers from aphasia that makes every word a struggle. On Wednesday, her speech about rediscovering her voice, around 150 words, is the longest address she's made since she was shot. "I found one word and then I found another. My recovery is a daily fight but fighting makes me stronger," she said. "Words once came easily. Today, I struggled to speak, but I have not lost my voice." 

And on the final night of the convention, a 13-year-old boy named Brayden Harrington talked about how Biden helped him with his stutter.

"I'm just a regular kid, and in a short amount of time Joe Biden made me more confident about something that's bothered me my whole life. Joe Biden cared," Harrington said. He showed viewers the tricks Biden shared with him to reduce his stuttering.

Lightness and darkness

Nearly every major speaker defined the terms of the upcoming election starkly, as a battle for the future of the country. Biden took the metaphor further in his acceptance speech, framing his campaign as a beacon of light while Mr. Trump's vision is darker and more divisive.

"The current president has cloaked America in darkness for much too long," Biden said. "If you entrust me with the presidency, I will draw on the best of us, not the worst. I will be an ally of the light, not the darkness."

"In this dark moment, I believe we're poised to make great progress again. That we can find the light once more," Biden later continued. "This is a battle we will win, and we'll do it together."

In his speech, Mr. Obama also said he believed in Biden's "ability to lead this country out of these dark times and build it back better."

Getting out the vote

Each of the major speakers at the convention emphasized the importance of voting in this year's election, particularly since Mr. Trump continues to try to raise doubts about voting by mail. Mr. Obama urged young people not to become disillusioned by politics, but to turn out in November.

"Do not let them take away your power. Do not let them take away your democracy. Make a plan right now for how you're going to get involved and vote. Do it as early as you can and tell your family and friends how they can vote too," Mr. Obama said.

Hillary Clinton noted wryly in her address on Tuesday that she had heard people who did not vote in 2016 express regret that they did not participate in that election.

"For four years, people have said to me, 'I didn't realize how dangerous he was.' 'I wish I could go back and do it over.' Or worst, 'I should have voted.' Well, this can't be another 'woulda coulda shoulda' election," Clinton said.

Speakers also frequently mentioned recent operational changes at the U.S. Postal Service that have led to delays in mail delivery and concerns about the likely influx of absentee ballots in November due to the coronavirus pandemic. On Thursday, the convention featured a video of elderly voters discussing the importance of voting and having the ability to vote by mail.

Sarah Cooper, a comedian who has gained fame for lip-syncing speeches of Mr. Trump, said that the president was railing against vote-by-mail because he knows it will kill his re-election hopes.

"Nothing is more dangerous to our democracy than his attacks on mail-in voting in the middle of a pandemic," Cooper said. "Donald Trump doesn't want any of us to vote because he knows he can't win fair and square."

Emphasis on military on night 4

The final night of the convention highlighted men and women in the nation's military. 

Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth, a veteran who lost her leg to a blast in Iraq, told her story and that of the support her husband provided in her hardest days. Military families, she said, make enormous sacrifices. Duckworth said Biden knows that sacrifice, having sent off his son, Beau Biden, to war. 

"He understands their bravery because he has had to muster that same strength every hour of every day Beau was overseas," Duckworth said. 

Beau Biden survived military service but lost his battle to cancer in 2015. The convention also showed videos portraying Beau Biden's military service.

A 95-year-old Republican who served in World War II and the Korean War and who voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 voiced his support for Biden in a video. "I think Trump has been the worst president we've ever had," veteran Ed Good said. 

Biden ended his acceptance speech by asking God to protect the troops. 

The Zoom speech 

Though Biden and Harris made their remarks in Wilmington, Delaware, most of the speeches were delivered from other locations and some were pre-recorded. Despite the limitations of their venues, some of the speakers delivered powerful presentations, at ease no matter how their speeches were delivered — whether live with camera crews or with their own home smartphone setups. Others stumbled a little with the new medium.

Mr. Obama, speaking live from the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, was clearly at ease delivering a scathing speech rebuking Mr. Trump and endorsing Biden. Michelle Obama also gave an emotional speech, recorded in advance in what appeared to be a home setting.

Other backdrops, though, were less effective. Former President Clinton and Hillary Clinton spoke on Tuesday and Wednesday in front of the same couch in their Chappaqua, New York home. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer spoke from Brooklyn with the Statue of Liberty in the background, but the nighttime speech made it difficult to see Lady Liberty. 

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