The Democrats Are Off to a Good Start—But Not Untouchable | Opinion

It goes without saying that conventions are not what they once were. They haven't been decision-making bodies for some time. In fact, they make no decisions of any consequence. They cast only perfunctory votes. And this year the delegates barely met at all. That being said, parties will gladly accept the four mostly unfiltered nights of prime time to talk directly to the public. Americans hear from the party's "stars" on matters they deem most important. Most critically, the party's presidential and vice presidential nominees can tell the country how they intend to govern should they win the election. Arguably, the country will learn more about the candidates and their intentions from their acceptance speeches than most other campaign appearances.

This year features the battle of infomercials, since the convention delegates' only meeting was perfunctory. Democrats' program production value was high. The proceedings were fast paced and, with a two-hour prime-time limit, may have held viewers' attention more easily than live proceedings. There was a heavy dose of Hollywood performers. Most were good, with the notable exception of Julia Louie Dreyfus, who was determined to let viewers in on her views. But the four nights were well produced. The Republicans will have to work hard to match this final product.

Here are a couple of other measurements to judge how the Democrats performed.

Notables

Democrats brought out their heavy artillery and young guns. Three former presidents, including Barack Obama, plus Michelle Obama, who are the two most popular political figures in America, former nominees Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, and several 2020 presidential candidates headlined the proceedings. In addition, prominent Republicans led by Governor John Kasich, Colin Powell and Cindy McCain participated. They were backed by a host of young mayors, governors and members of Congress. In a virtual campaign, this supply of surrogates will be important as the fall unfolds.

Goals

It's been said that Democrats want this election to be a referendum on President Donald Trump. Republicans seek a choice of two candidates, but that became much more difficult when the Democrats selected Biden, a far less polarizing figure than, say, Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. The Democratic speeches focused their fire on Trump—effectively, in many cases. The Obamas were particularly effective. The president seemed to acknowledge the attacks, tweeting regularly about what was being said about him. The most effective lines hit the president on the still-raging COVID-19 pandemic, economic upheaval and civil unrest prevalent in the nation. When a president's approval numbers are upside down, as are Trump's, such attacks amplify the out-party's message of change.

Democrats were effective in their lines of attack. However, specifics were few and far between. Outside of Biden's promise to fight COVID-19 on day one, does anyone really know the Biden-Harris priorities? I am not talking about the laundry list of promises. Rather, what are the top two or three areas they will focus on? This is critical because new administrations have limited political capital. It does make a difference whether Biden will focus on growing the economy or equalizing incomes, climate change, health care or clean energy? There was precious little discussion of foreign policy—will he re-engage with the world or continue America's retrenchment? This is a fruitful area if Republicans can focus on the large gaps in the Democratic narrative. Whether they have such discipline beginning next week remains to be seen.

Voter Groups

Energizing base voters is key to an election like this, where there are few genuine undecideds. Democrats have become the party of minorities and women and made a major effort to identify with this growing demographic by loading up its convention program with such speakers—led, of course, by vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris. Democrats are counting on an outsized turnout of these groups, closer to Obama numbers than Hillary Clinton's.

Candidate Speeches

Harris may very well be the attack dog for Democrats. Her speech was tough on the president, and she seems to relish the role. It is also clear that her presence on the ticket is a major draw for base Democratic constituencies.

Biden spent considerable time trying to identify with voters' sufferings and concerns, as he recalled his childhood experiences and his father's wish that politicians understood his family's concerns. His delivery was clear and focused and was an effective first response to Republican attacks that he is past his prime. He tried to be more above the fray and, in a bid for Republican votes, pledged to work on behalf of all Americans, not just those who vote for him. He echoed other speakers by attacking the president's record on COVID-19, economic difficulties and health care. He promised a new style of leadership, more cooperation and respect for others. He hit hot-button Democratic issues, such as taxing the rich, protecting Social Security and Medicare, and fighting racial injustice. He pledged a new focus on eradicating COVID-19 as the first issue he will tackle. He gave fewer specifics after that. However, it was a strong and forceful address that could effectively highlight his fall campaign themes.

The 2020 Democratic Ticket
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris confer on stage after Joe Biden delivered his acceptance speech on the fourth night of the Democratic National Convention from the Chase Center on August 20 in Wilmington, Delaware. Win McNamee/Getty

The convention hit all of the main points: a referendum on the current administration, message amplification, turnout and surrogates. It's a strong start for the Democrats. Yet the coalition Biden is attempting to assemble has many diverse and distinct parts. The ability of Republicans to divide the large anti-Trump vote could determine the outcome of the coming election.

Frank Donatelli served as assistant for political affairs to President Ronald Reagan and as deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee during the 2008 presidential campaign of John McCain.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​