Shane: Three nights down, and many of the Democratic Party’s biggest stars have spoken. The Obamas and the Clintons. Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s leading rivals from the 2020 primaries. And delivering the biggest speech of her career: Senator Kamala Harris. What do you think the big takeaway was from Wednesday night?
Jonathan: There was Barack Obama and then there was everything else. I don’t think much of anything else will be remembered tomorrow, at least in terms of rhetoric. A former president not only blistering his successor but standing at the birthplace of American democracy to essentially say: break glass, this is a (political) emergency.
Shane: It was a tough draw for Ms. Harris to follow Mr. Obama, for sure. But I do think she delivered a speech — even with the extra challenge of no cheering crowd — that both helped introduce herself to the country and flashed the cutting one-liners that Democrats fell in love with from her congressional inquisitions. “There is no vaccine for racism” chief among them.
Jonathan: Yeah, she did what she needed to do, introduced herself to medium-info voters just tuning in, praised Mr. Biden and took after President Trump. Mission accomplished. But as with most V.P. speeches, I’m not sure any lines will be remembered.
Shane: One small thing that struck me — from Ms. Harris, Mr. Obama, Hillary Clinton and lots of others — was the repeated focus on the mechanics of voting. Democrats really want people getting mail-in ballots, and getting them in early.
Jonathan: Even repeating the number to text! Really added to the infomercial vibe of the whole affair. Operators are standing by …
Shane: Look, the fact that the Biden campaign got to play — uninterrupted in prime time — the 2017 Medal of Freedom ceremony was a political gift as valuable as any infomercial. It will be interesting to see how the Trump campaign tries to leverage this kind of access to the airwaves, and what the networks do and don’t air next week.
Anyway, after 75 percent of the convention, it really feels like, if the Biden team hopes voters take away one word from this week, it would be “empathy.”
Hillary Clinton returns to the big stage, but out of prime time.
Jonathan: It was a workmanlike effort from the Democrats’ 2016 nominee, and one that often evoked, well, 2016. She alluded to knowing from “slings and arrows,” she did an even-Bernie-Sanders shout-out, she referred to “foreign adversaries,” and she made sure to note that she won the popular vote. I think that’s to be expected. It’s forever 2016 for many Democrats, not just the Clintons.
Shane: Hmmm, I seem to recall a really good column on that.
Jonathan: Appreciate you! Which reminds me, have you considered the Democrats’ anxiety — and flare-up of 2016 PTSD — if and when Mr. Trump narrows the gap in the polls?
Shane: It’s really going to be something — or imagine a first-debate flop like Mr. Obama’s in 2012. But back to this week, seeing Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton — the stars of so many conventions past — out of the prime-time spotlight is still something to get used to. And it’s not like Mr. Biden was all about turning the page on the past with the whole program.
Jonathan: Right. But the polling is clear: This is Mr. Obama’s party. That’s no small part of why the Democrats nominated … Joe Biden this year!
Shane: Remember all those Mike Bloomberg ads, trying to make him appear as the Obama candidate?
Jonathan: Yeah, we saw a lot of file footage this past primary season from the 2009-2017 White House.
Gabby Giffords’s emotional speech highlights policy hour.
Shane: This happens every convention (even non-virtual ones!), but the divide between what makes it into prime time and what doesn’t is very revealing. I actually thought one of the most powerful moments from Wednesday’s lineup was former Representative Gabby Giffords. Less than a decade after she was shot in the head at point-blank range, there she is playing the French horn and delivering a searing speech about gun violence.
Jonathan: It may prove to be the most emotional moment of the week. And, incidentally, I can still remember where I was when I heard Ms. Giffords was shot. There’s something profound that still lingers about her attempted assassination — and her extraordinary recovery.
Shane: I was in the gallery when she made her return to the House floor, and the progress she has made since then is simply inspiring. She anchored a 9 p.m. hour that was really our first foray into policy: guns, climate change and immigration.
Jonathan: Much, much more substantive than the fare of the first two nights, which was heavy on portraying Mr. Biden as a good man and Mr. Trump as, well, a not-so-good one.
Shane: And it felt very much geared toward younger voters (see: Billie Eilish). But I wonder if we were looking at Mr. Biden’s political imperatives or his 2021 governing priorities. Mr. Biden has plenty of policy plans, but they have never been his emphasis. I know we both saw him apologize plenty of times during the primary for even veering into policy on the stump.
Jonathan: I think after all the older figures of the first two nights, Republicans and Democrats, and the short shrift given to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, that younger and more progressive voters needed something that spoke more to them.
Barack Obama sears Trump in historic fashion.
Shane: OK, you’re a history buff. Has a former president ever spoken like Mr. Obama did about a current one?
Jonathan: Well, not in modern times. When Theodore Roosevelt tried to come back in 1912, he was tough on William Howard Taft. He called the portly incumbent a “fathead.” But Mr. Obama tonight said Mr. Trump was a menace to democracy and ridiculed him as lazy, saying he had “no interest in putting in the work.”
Shane: But other than that …
Jonathan: Oh, hat tip to David Greenberg, an excellent historian with a forthcoming John Lewis biography, who exhumed our paper’s coverage of Herbert Hoover’s scathing attack on Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936.
Shane: The whole thing was a far cry from the speech that launched Mr. Obama’s career, the keynote at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. You know, the one dismissing how “the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states.” Now Mr. Obama basically builds in the fact that broad swaths of the country are going to tune him out. As he said on Wednesday, “I know that in times as polarized as these, most of you have already made up your mind.”
Jonathan: Right, a much more sobered and less optimistic Barack Obama in Philadelphia than he was when he made his national debut in another historic city 16 years ago!
Shane: One other thing. The irony is not lost on me that a lot of the response to Mr. Obama’s speech was — gasp — that he broke the norm of not attacking a successor by name. I mean, Mr. Trump has been proudly trampling on norms for four years. All told, do you think Mr. Obama helped Mr. Biden tonight?
Jonathan: I think so, for the simple reason that he’s a broadly popular former president who criticized his successor in a way that will echo on social media and in news coverage. And that small but crucial bloc of undecided voters is likely to catch at least a glimpse of his remarks.
Kamala Harris makes history.
Shane: Well, you said before that none of Ms. Harris’s particular lines are going to stand the test of time. But one of the most powerful messages that Ms. Harris delivers is simply being who she is: the first Black woman and first woman of Asian heritage ever to be on a major-party ticket.
Jonathan: An electric moment, particularly for Black women, who are some of the most reliable Democratic voters but have been underrepresented at the top rungs of electoral politics. Nobody knows this better than you, being a son of the Bay Area, but Ms. Harris is always more effective when she’s prepared for a speech or a hearing. She was tonight. It’s just that she happened to speak after the last president called the current president a threat to democracy.
Shane: Well, and I wish I could take credit for this idea, but as Heidi Heitkamp pointed out, no one is better at delivering an impassioned speech to an empty room than a United States senator. That hanging silence in the room as Ms. Harris waved to a screen of beamed-in supporters really was an image befitting our socially distanced times.
Jonathan: Yes! There have been few things stranger about this week than those first seconds after the speakers conclude when there’s only … silence. Call me old-fashioned, but I miss the real McCoy. The audience reaction can’t be replicated. And, yeah, I miss seeing friends and sources, and pushing our expense account.
Shane: So. Do. I. (Especially when it’s on your card.)