Joe Biden
Joe BidenReuters

American party conventions used to be unpredictable, exciting, occasionally chaotic affairs, with barnstorming speeches staged for the public and smoke-filled rooms laid on for insiders. Not any more. This year’s Democratic National Convention was hijacked by the Covid-19 pandemic, so the party has made a virtue of necessity. Instead of a gathering of the faithful, the convention was a four-day virtual coronation of Joe Biden. Every evening featured a sequence of endorsements from both wings of the Democrats, plus a few prominent Republicans to denounce President Trump.

So far, everything went according to plan. The first night featured former First Lady Michelle Obama, the second former Presidents Carter and Clinton plus the Kennedy family. All are reminders of happier times, or at least less turbulent ones.

Nostalgia for the good old days, however, was balanced by contributions from progressives focused on the future. Bernie Sanders — the movement’s Democratic Socialist standard-bearer, who gave both Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden a run for their money in the primaries — endorsed the former Vice President. He exulted in the fact that his ideas were no longer regarded as extreme, but as “mainstream” in the Democratic Party.

Progressives see Biden as a transitional figure, a necessary first step on the road to their version of the American dream.
Senator Sanders, however, is 78, the same age that Biden will be if and when he enters the White House. Their politics may differ, but they belong to the same generation — the generation that has borne the brunt of the coronavirus crisis. The real voice of the progressives is now Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, known as “AOC”. The organisers were clearly nervous of the 30-year-old New York Congresswoman, limiting her slot to just one minute. She pointedly failed even to mention Biden, but issued a defiant challenge to the capitalist system, denouncing the “unsustainable brutality of an economy that rewards explosive inequalities of wealth for the few”.

AOC later tweeted her endorsement of the man who is now her party’s official Presidential candidate. “No worries,” she added, but her silence spoke volumes. Progressives see Biden as a transitional figure, a necessary first step on the road to their version of the American dream. They envisage a very different America, a glimpse of which was provided by Ady Barkan, who spoke for the disabled using a voice simulator on the subject of healthcare: “We are the richest country in history and yet we do not guarantee this most basic human right. Everyone living in America should get the healthcare they need regardless of their employment status or ability to pay.”

This is the “socialised medicine” that makes Republicans see red and centrist Democrats squirm. Biden has promised to extend Obamacare but he has been deliberately vague about the details. He knows that he will inherit a nation in recession, with no majority in Congress for free, taxpayer-funded healthcare — even if he believed in such a radical policy. The stage is therefore set for a Biden Administration to split on this and other issues, between a centrist White House and the leaders of a progressive movement that claims the prerogatives of the kingmaker.

The key question is: whose side is Kamala Harris on? The putative Vice President was keenly watched as she competed with former President Obama for the attention of tens of millions of viewers. Senator Harris played it safe, endorsing the Democratic platform and joining in the somewhat cloying chorus of praise for Joe Biden.

But there may be hints of what she would be like in office. Her own presidential run was underwhelming and she is not yet well known outside her native California. But “Kamala” (the stress is on the first syllable) is the favourite to inherit the White House from her running mate. She has progressive credentials yet she is also a political chameleon whose core values have yet to be revealed. Look out for a new piece by Michael Taube (to be posted later, ed.) which analyses the Harris platform and record on policy in detail.

The actual President, meanwhile, has hardly been able to contain himself while watching the Democratic Convention. Speaking in Yuma, Arizona, Donald Trump contrasted his own fitness for office with his rival’s frailty: “I’m supposed to speak for 45 minutes. It’s about 120 degrees. Do you think Joe Biden could do that? I don’t think so.”

He went on to repeat what will clearly be the theme of his campaign: “Joe Biden is the puppet of the radical Left-wing movement that seeks the complete elimination of America’s borders and boundaries.” Trump, in other words, will not run against Biden’s centrist policies, but against those of the progressives. To make this more plausible to voters, Trump needs to flesh out the threat posed by a Democratic Party that he claims has now gone “beyond socialism”.

This is why the positions adopted by Kamala Harris matter so much to both sides. This is why the Biden-Harris lead in the polls, which will probably widen after this week’s saturation coverage of the Convention, is not yet decisive. And this is why Trump may even prove to be right when he claims that this November, Americans face “the most important election in the history of our country”.

Will the Democrats’ unconventional Convention propel Joe Biden into the White House? Not yet: this race is still wide open.

Daniel Johnson is the founding Editor of TheArticle. For two decades he was a senior editor, editorial writer and columnist for The Times and the Daily Telegraph, before leaving to set up Standpoint magazine, which he edited for 10 years. He contributes regularly to Daily Mail, Wall Street Journal, Commentary, New Criterion, National Review and other papers, magazines and websites.@DANBJOHN| @DANBJOHNSON

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