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DNC 2020: Virtual Convention, Real Talk

This week, democracy-ish welcomes CNN contributor Karen Finney. She’s sitting in for Danielle, who's on a well-deserved vacation.

  • The 2020 Democratic Convention was a star-studded call to action without a packed convention hall.

  • Democrats took advantage of the virtual format with an intimate, real-talk approach.

  • The overall message was clear: Nothing less than our democracy is at stake.

It’s official: The Democratic Party formally nominated Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. and Kamala Devi Harris as President and Vice President of the United States of America.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the convention was, as nearly every political operative and pundit quipped all week long, decidedly unconventional.

In the Before Times, the DNC was slated to take place at the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee. But now, it became a command center for a colossal virtual production.

With only a few exceptions, the speeches were delivered from offices, kitchens and living rooms across the nation. Delegates voted via live feeds from every state and territory that highlighted the unique qualities of every one.

That roll call process “brought out the complexity and variety of America, from Rhode Island calamari to New Mexico's native dress,” says Toure. “It was way cooler than what’d you get in the convention hall.”

Strategist and activist Karen Finney is an old friend of Toure’s and a veteran of four Democratic presidential campaigns. So she has attended her fair share of conventions.

“Hats off to them for doing a phenomenal job of condensing a whole four-day program into four nights of two hours each,” she says.

There was laughter, there were tears –– and plenty of righteous anger. Karen and Toure break down the format, the highlights and the net effect of a convention in the COVID era.

Episode Highlights –– DNC Keeps It Real

Hi, I’m Kamala!

To Toure, Kamala’s acceptance speech was a way to introduce herself to the country.

She placed herself in the tradition of Fannie Lou Hamer, Constance Baker Motley and Shirley Chisholm. She talked about her understanding of public service as a noble pursuit.

But her remarks stood in contrast to the fiery speeches of conventions past. “She didn't intend to burn down the barn in the way Obama did at the '04 DNC that launched his career. It was intended to be like a nice, warm hello, nice to meet you.”

Karen agrees, but points out that her speech was appropriate for the unique moment: Instead of a packed arena, Kamala spoke to a handful of reporters.

“When nobody's cheering … you have to bring all the energy yourself. I thought she did a fantastic job of rising to that occasion.”

Karen spoke this week with Star Jones, who has known our newly minted VP candidate since high school. Star, like her friend, is a former prosecutor. She points out that “you have to be able to deliver that kind of opening and closing statement to 12 people,” Karen explains. “Not a big crowd. It’s a skill.”

Kamala warms it up

To those who know her as a tough-as-nails senator, Kamala’s remarks reveal a softer side.

“As a Black woman, there are certain ways you say and do things. I thought Kamala was forceful and powerful and strong. But I know, from working with so many Black women candidates, that delivery really matters in how people perceive what you're telling them.”

That’s necessary, she adds, because of the pervasive trope of the angry Black woman –– and of course, because the public is critical of any woman in ways we are about men.

“You're right –– the smallest things are part of the introduction to America, especially when you're Black and when you're female,” Toure says, adding that in his early days as an MSNBC commentator, he’d watch himself back and notice that he often looked angry even when he was not.

“When you're in the middle of making a serious point, your eyebrows go down, which is a fairly natural reaction. But it looks very mean. You have to make a conscious effort to raise your eyebrows so you have an open face. So you look friendly.”

Black people in the public eye know this, he adds.

“And Kamala was really thoughtful about having a smiling, open face and a warm, friendly, welcoming tone.”

‘Momala’s’ modern family

Kamala’s big moment was preceded by a short video that “created pride around her,” Toure says.

It featured young girls jumping up and down with delight over getting her autograph. Her younger sister Maya talked about how Kamala protected her when they were kids. Her stepdaughter Ella spoke lovingly of “Momala, the world’s best stepmom.” Her niece, Meena, called her a role model and confidante.

“It was really beautiful, and it showed the diversity of her family,” Karen notes. “It looks like the TV show “Modern Family,” which is what a lot of American families look like, and are looking more like.”

Kamala’s story –– raised mostly by a single mother, worked her way through university and law school, cared for her mother when she was dying of cancer –– is a powerful one because “a lot of us can relate,” she adds.

“I like that she showed us, and didn't just tell us: I'm you,” says Karen.

The DNC featured a ton of pro-woman energy throughout, but one of the shining stars was Michelle Obama, who headlined night one.

She, perhaps more than anyone else, took advantage of our socially distanced moment.

“It would have been hard to give a speech like that in front of a roaring crowd,” says Karen. It was personal: Let me sit here and talk with you for a minute about what's real.”

Because Michelle is wildly popular across backgrounds and generations, her reach goes well beyond the Democratic base to independents and hopefully to one of the most sought-after demos in this race: moderate, suburban white women who voted for Trump in 2016.

Those voters moved away from the president almost immediately. They definitely moved away from Republicans by the 2018 midterm election.

“It's how we got such a phenomenal group of wonderful new women in Congress,” Karen explains. “And they're still moving away from him.”

That’s why it was particularly effective for Michelle to appeal to parents, saying: “right now, kids in this country are seeing what happens when we stop requiring empathy of one another.”

“She is saying it to us like she’s the mom of America,” says Toure.

Michelle Obama’s mic drop: ‘It is what it is’

Michelle’s plainspoken assertion that Trump is in over his head is not political science, Toure notes.

“It’s not even left-right. Even if you're on the right … you’ve gotta admit: He is in over his head. And did you notice that she ended that [segment] with –– ‘it is what it is’?

That was the exact phrase Trump used in his interview with Axios’ Jonathan Swan when responding to the astronomical number of COVID deaths.

“It is what it is. Boom. Drop the mic,” says Karen.

Her intimate, personal, down-to-brass-tacks style set a theme for the rest of the convention. Jill Biden and President Obama, among others, used a real-talk approach to make the case that character counts.

Anyone who’s on the fence about their vote (“I don’t know who they are,” Karen cracks) should appreciate their characterization of the reality we’re living in –– a stark contrast to Trump’s insistence that we’re winning the pandemic bigly.

“We know the emperor has no clothes, man,” she adds. “Because we're here.”

A ‘permission structure’ for disaffected Trumpers

Emotional appeals from bipartisan household names like Michelle Obama and Colin Powell were the lynchpin of a larger theme at the DNC: creating a permission structure for Trump voters to jump ship –– hopefully taking some friends and family along, too.

“As a true blue Democrat, I want to hear Joe talk about how Trump is a racist, incompetent, evil moron,” says Toure. “But he won't do that. He wants to present himself as a decent, dignified, pleasant person you won’t mind being in charge for the next four years.”

Moreover, wavering Trump supporters are looking for someplace to go, and Biden doesn’t want them to feel like hypocrites for voting blue.

Plus, those voters would “shut down” in response to those kinds of attacks from Biden, says Karen.

“People don't want to be told they’re stupid ... or wrong.”

In her work with focus groups of white, college-educated Trump voters, she’s found that many are “kind of disgusted” with him. They say things like, I wanted change, but this isn't what I meant … They agree he's not doing a good job handling COVID. But they don't want to attack him personally.”

The party of Lincoln on the DNC stage

The effort to reach out to ‘Pubs stood out in stark relief to Toure at times.

“Am I watching the RNC?” he says. “I thought this was the DNC. Endless Republican voters who are like, yeah, I can't do that again.”

He’s happy to see them –– and that the Dems can embrace them.

“But as a progressive, it makes me nervous. If you’re reaching out so hard to the flippable right, and if you get elected thinking they came with you, then you're not going to be governing for progressives. You'll be governing for them.”

Karen thinks we need to put that argument in perspective. She knows some “Lincoln Project” Republicans –– ‘never-Trumpers’ putting significant money and effort into electing Biden via a viral online ad campaign.

“I am under no illusion that these folks will become Democrats,” she says. “Many of them are opposed to abortion rights, for example. That’s a core Democratic Party value. But our interests happen to be aligned right now.”

She says that when –– “God willing” –– Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are elected, they’ll have to remember that. They need to dance with the ones that brought them, so to speak.

Are the Clintons canceled?

Toure wasn’t impressed with a few big-name speeches at the virtual DNC.

“Bill Clinton was forgettable. I'm sorry. Hillary Clinton was forgettable,” he says. “She would have been great at governing. She’s a master of details, of the backroom –– getting people to negotiate and create legislation. But giving a great speech is not her best talent.”

Bill, he adds, was once known as ‘the great explainer,’ but “that has sort of faded away.”

Karen, who was Hillary’s press secretary in the ‘90s and her spokesperson for the 2016 campaign, disagrees.

“I thought she did what she needed to do,” she says. “She talked about what's at stake, and the historic moment for women and girls. And it matters to have someone like Bill Clinton, who’s done the job, say that Biden can.”

#44 has the floor

Toure, Karen, and the free world agree that Barack Obama hasn’t lost his touch. Not one bit.

“He was able to transcend the difficulty of speaking to no one –– like, no one,” says Toure.

Obama was never a politician who said: Give me your vote, I’ll make everything great.

“He always was like, you’ve got to come with me. Continue to have responsibility after I'm elected. And he brought that back again tonight.”

Toure sees a link between the Obamas’ speeches: the non-political notion that Trump is neither interested or able to do the job. The current president has no interest in putting in the work and zero reverence for democracy.

“It's not about left-right. It's about who he is, and he's the wrong person.”

Obama reclaims the ‘bully pulpit’

One of the hallmarks of this convention, Karen observes, was its use of place. Given the circumstances and time constraints, the Dems maximized impact by highlighting historic, compelling and beautiful backdrops.

It went beyond the powerful, state-by-state roll call. Jim Clyburn addressed the DNC from Charleston, where he pointed out that slaves disembarked from overseas right where he was standing.

But nobody did it better than President Obama, who addressed us from the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.

“He looked like he could have been standing in the White House,” says Karen. “There was a little bit of that bully pulpit.”

Particularly powerful for her were Obama’s remarks on what’s at stake for our “fundamental, basic democracy.”

Obama said that he understands why so many citizens don’t like or even believe in our government. But he made a forceful case for why it matters. After all, who could have imagined that the postal service would be in jeopardy –– in the middle of a pandemic?

The task for Biden: two-track turnaround

Karen concurs with Toure –– Biden is more centrist than many Dems would prefer.

“There are certainly places I’d like to see him move farther to the left. But I also want us to be real. The job will be on a dual track: undoing the damage, and putting us on a path forward.”

The damage is all too clear, and it’s what has to be addressed first: the executive orders, the attacks on the environment, the decimation of government agencies.

“My God, we have an attorney general who doesn't even think systemic racism exists,” she says. “I'm talking about the stuff that, having worked in government, I know about, but that a lot of folks don't realize actually affects our lives day-to-day. We have to get in there and root that crap out.”

The DNC was an edifying, uplifting, and hopefully effective production. But Toure argues that, even if Biden does win, “the end of Trump is not the end of Trump-ism.”

He adds: “We're going to have a continued battle against the emboldened racism we see now. And the endless Karen and Ken videos we see every day.”

Our guest takes umbrage with that.

“We don't want to hate all Karens. Some Karens are good people,” she says.

“We love this Karen,” says Toure. “We’ll be back next week. I think we will still have a country next week. It's looking pretty good right now.”

Karen agrees.

“I think you're pretty safe on that one. I hope. Knock on wood.”

Get your weekly rundown of the presidential election from a Black progressive point of view on democracy-ish. Consider Danielle Moodie and Toure as your tour guides, flight attendants and/or therapists as we move through this dumpster fire of an election cycle — together!

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