What Biden needs to do tonight, more than anything, is avoid committing any lapse or glitch on the podium that might reinforce Republicans’ efforts to depict him as unfit for the presidency.
Here are the other things we’re watching for on the final night of the Democratic National Convention:
Kamala’s competition takes the stage
Tonight’s program includes a handful of other 2020 candidates who didn’t make the cut, including Cory Booker and Pete Buttigieg, as well as the ambitious governor of Kamala Harris’ home state, Gavin Newsom, who is drawing attention for whether he will or will not appear (more on that below).
Yes, Harris is suddenly the heir apparent, and even her detractors largely agree she owns the likeliest path to the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination the next time it’s up for grabs, whether that’s in 2024 or 2028.
But as Biden’s unusual path through the primaries demonstrated this year, there’s no such thing as a clean shot in presidential politics. If Biden loses in November, Harris’ stock will plummet. If Biden wins but runs again and loses in 2024, same thing. And no matter what, other party stars will want to make a run for it.
“[Michigan Gov. Gretchen] Whitmer’s not going to run? Newsom’s not going to run?” one Democratic strategist asked incredulously.
Harris is not Dan Quayle. But consider how far his once-ascendant career had fallen by 1999, when the former vice president couldn’t even make it to Iowa caucus day. Ending his presidential campaign that year, Quayle said, “There’s a time to stay and there’s a time to fold. There’s a time to know when to leave the stage.”
Even if Harris doesn’t wind up on a losing ticket, Quayle demonstrated, too, that there are other ways to stumble. And no one can say with certainty where the progressive movement will be four or eight years from now, or how Harris will be viewed within it.
“We thought 2020 was nuts,” a Democratic strategist who works closely with major party donors wrote in a text message. “Just wait for ’24.”
Finally, some DNC programming Republicans have been thirsting for: Hunter Biden, Joe Biden’s son.
During the primary, there was little Biden seemed to detest more than questions about his son’s work for a Ukrainian gas company while he was vice president. Biden called it a “distraction” from Trump’s attempts to get the Bidens investigated by Ukrainian authorities, which led to the president’s impeachment.
It’s probably a no-win issue, though some Republicans seem to disagree — at least the ones wearing the “Where’s Hunter?” T-shirts.
On one hand, according to a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll in February, a majority of voters (52 percent) believe it was inappropriate for Hunter Biden to have worked for the gas company Burisma. But that judgment hasn’t reflected back on Joe Biden much, despite Trump’s efforts.
On Thursday, the Trump campaign released an ad attacking Hunter Biden. Tonight, he has a chance to respond.
Conventions are changed forever
If tonight goes without a glitch, the future of national conventions will change forever.
The parties will go back to in-person gatherings, of course. But conventions had largely become infomercials before the coronavirus. The pandemic then took that evolution to the extreme and tested its effectiveness.
Most significantly, the virtual format this week allowed the DNC to rigorously control its message, pre-recording politicians’ statements and training the camera — and the public’s focus — exclusively on them. There were no protesters to pan to, and there was little room for unforced errors.
Some of that will be lost when in-person gatherings return, but not all. The filming of regular Americans in their natural habitats was, on balance, more interesting and effective than putting them on a stage. Schools are going hybrid. Future convention organizers may take a lesson from that and try to do the same.
“This convention, which started kind of as a, feeling like a … public access cable show from the 1980s, suddenly has become must-watch TV, from the calamari to the characters, from the moving stories to the music that is hitting us,” Eric Garcetti, the Los Angeles mayor and a co-chair of Biden’s campaign, said on a call with reporters Thursday morning. “This is the best convention I’ve ever seen.”
Gavin Newsom evaluates his options
California’s governor may or may not make his scheduled primetime appearance tonight — the best evidence yet that life outside of virtual reality can, in fact, alter what comes pre-packaged on the screen.
With wildfires crushing California, the governor’s office said today he may pull out. The governor is “evaluating options … while prioritizing the emergency response,” a political adviser said.
Natural disasters are, politically speaking, an opportunity for governors to demonstrate leadership in crisis. But they can also be constraining.
As POLITICO’s Jeremy B. White wrote this afternoon, “Embracing the speaking opportunity could open Newsom to accusations that he is more focused on political matters than on leading his state’s emergency response. It is also possible that Newsom’s original message was somehow made outdated by the sudden calamities facing his state.”
The Trump effect
The narrative will shift markedly next week, when attention shifts to the Republican National Convention.
But the bracketing that used to work for Trump, like the rallies he held during the Democratic primaries, hasn’t had the same oomph this week. And timing has not been the president’s friend.
On Thursday morning, Steve Bannon, a former senior White House adviser to Trump, was indicted by a federal grand jury in New York on charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering in connection with a private effort to build sections of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Trump claimed he didn’t “know anything about the project at all.”
At a campaign event in Pennsylvania hours before Biden’s speech, near the former vice president’s hometown of Scranton, Trump lit into his rival, saying, “If you want a vision of your life under a Biden presidency, think of the smoldering ruins in Minneapolis, the violent anarchy of Portland, the bloodstained sidewalks of Chicago and imagine the mayhem coming to our town and every single town in America.”
Trump said sarcastically, per a pool report, “Slow Joe will speak at the Democratic convention and I’m sure he’ll just knock them dead.”
But even Republicans are skeptical of what the Trump show will all add up to this year. One prominent GOP strategist wrote in an email, “It’s pathetic. QAnon, Goodyear, Bannon, a complete mess.” The strategist continued: “POTUS needs attention on Biden instead of trying to refocus on himself.”
And finally, we ask …
Is there any DNC speaker more thankful for the lack of a live audience this week than Michael Bloomberg? Any other year, those former staffers who sued him would be in the crowd.