Unlike 2016, Democrats kick off their national convention unified — for now

Alex Roarty
·6 min read

Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid is a distant memory, Tom Perez’s job is safe, and a virtual national convention this week is expected to proceed relatively smoothly.

What a difference four years makes for the Democrats.

A political party whose divisions were their most visible and visceral at the start of their last convention in 2016 begins this year’s events in a much different place, with its internal conflicts quieted — for now — in favor of a unified front committed to denying President Donald Trump a second term.

“There’s a unity of purpose and single-mindedness about the need to defeat Trump that transcends what we saw in 2016,” said Brian Fallon, a former national press secretary for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, “when people thought they could assume Trump was going to lose and we could afford to fight about other things.”

Indications of internal dissent are still likely at this week’s convention, most notably when hundreds of progressive delegates are expected to vote against the party’s official policy platform because, among other reasons, it doesn’t support single-payer health care.

Some liberal leaders also question whether the unity, aided by the widely held perception that Joe Biden’s campaign is going well, can last over the next two and a half months, if polls tighten and activists begin to more openly question the presumptive nominee’s strategy and messaging.

But the difference between the onset of this year’s convention and the convention four years ago is stark.

A day before the last convention, held in July in Philadelphia, DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz announced that she would resign from her post after the publication of hacked emails called into question the committee’s neutrality during the primary between Sanders and Clinton.

The emails and resignation in turn fueled Sanders supporters at the convention, who loudly protested throughout the week that the primary had been rigged in favor of Clinton. Sanders’ campaign, unlike this year, lasted through June, a month before the start of the DNC, making his bid fresh in the minds of supporters.

The dissent reached a crescendo during many of the convention’s speeches, when a small but vocal group of Sanders supporters (many of them seated with the California delegation) chanted during speeches, occasionally interrupting them.

“I could reach out and touch them, which I didn’t, because they were all screaming for Bernie during Hillary’s speech,” said Matt Bennett, the co-founder of the center-left think tank Third Way, who said he was seated next to the California delegation. “And I wanted to kill them.”

Media coverage of the convention fixated on the apparent internal division.

The 2020 DNC, which was originally set to take place in Milwaukee but will now be conducted digitally because of the coronavirus pandemic, won’t offer Biden detractors a similar opportunity at public opposition.

But progressive leaders say they would have expected that dissent to be less visible even in a normal convention, because of Biden’s post-primary posture and the overriding fear of Trump winning re-election.

Biden has shifted his rhetoric and, in some cases, even his policies since winning the primary, arguing that the coronavirus has revealed structural weaknesses in American society that the federal government must take definitive action to resolve.

The move, unusual for a nominee entering a general election, has drawn praise from activists, who say it’s proof that Biden understands their importance within the broader political coalition.

“Joe Biden was not the kind of leader who told people they needed to bow to him,” said Garlin Gilchrist, the Democratic lieutenant governor of Michigan and a former 2016 Sanders supporter who endorsed Biden in the 2020 primary. “They didn’t need to bend the knee to Joe Biden.”

After the primary, Biden and Sanders agreed to form a so-called “Unity Task Force,” a project in which representatives from both camps would come together and make a series of policy recommendations. That process led to Biden adopting several more liberal policy positions, including on climate change, and opened up his campaign to criticism from Trump officials that he had adopted a radical leftist agenda.

But it was also proof, one Sanders official said, that Biden was committed to laying out a policy agenda instead of being satisfied to simply criticize Trump, a mistake they said Clinton made four years ago.

“It was more than just talking about how terrible Trump is, it was this is what I”m for, this is what we need to do for the middle-class and racial justice,” said the Sanders official, granted anonymity to speak candidly.

Biden’s affirmative vision doesn’t go far enough, the official added, but it’s “still more than Hillary did.”

Still, there has been some grumbling from the left heading into the convention. Some took issue with Democrats granting former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was once a Republican, and John Kasich, the former GOP governor of Ohio, primetime speaking slots while a progressive favorite like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York was only given one minute. Others bemoaned the general lack of diversity of the list of speakers, particularly with regards to Latinos.

Plus, about 800 Sanders delegates have reportedly pledged to vote against the party’s official platform this week, citing its lack of support for a Medicare for All health care system that was a staple of the Vermont senator’s campaign.

Norman Solomon, national director of RootsAction.org who has helped organize the pledge, said Biden’s decision not to embrace the health care overhaul was the source of division, not the dissent shown by he and other Sanders delegates.

“To quote Jesse Jackson’s speech at the 1988 convention, it takes two wings to fly,” Solomon said.

But even Solomon said the level of resentment on the left over Biden and his platform falls well short of 2016, in part because many progressives view him differently than they did Clinton.

“Hillary Clinton transparently hated the left,” Solomon said. “Biden doesn’t seem to hate the left; he merely has had little use for it in his political career.”

Solomon and other activists say they are satisfied knowing that even if Biden isn’t their first choice, he’s a far better option than Trump. And if he wins the presidency, the progressive movement can revert to pressuring him to adopt a bigger, bolder agenda.

Other Democrats say the threat Trump winning re-election has scared the left in a way that it didn’t in 2016, when many progressives and the broader public believed Clinton was a cinch to defeat Trump.

They no longer believe that about Biden, even if he is leading in the polls.

“It does feel like the existential threat of Trump and Trumpism is undeniable,” said Deval Patrick, the former Democratic governor of Massachusetts who briefly ran for president. “And I think everyone gets that.”

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