As different as the circumstances and look of the Democratic National Convention were from the party's 2016 version, it featured several of the same highlights.
A stirring, emotional speech from Michelle Obama. Another one from her husband, this time not as the departing President, but because of that change in status containing the fiercer urgency of denying Donald Trump a second term. And an address from the party's nominee that exceeded expectations, which in Joe Biden's case revolved around whether he could avoid the improvisation that sometimes gets him into trouble but bring passion to a teleprompter recital.
The Republican National Convention began Aug. 24 with Donald Trump Jr. trying to put the best face on some of his father's most-questionable decisions and actions. He introduced the coronavirus as having come to the U.S. "courtesy of the Chinese Communist Party," and said that while more work remained to be done to eradicate it, there was "light at the end of the tunnel," even as the death toll here marched toward 180,000.
He said the Democrats "attacked my father for suspending the payroll tax for middle-class workers," neglecting to mention that this is the tax that supports the Social Security trust fund, and that discontinuing it would leave it without money to pay benefits by 2023.
'Mass Chaos in the Streets'
But halfway into his 10-minute address, he turned to the culture war unfolding in the time of social distancing—at least for those not drinking the elder Trump's magic potions—and declared, "People of faith are under attack. You're not allowed to go to church, but mass chaos in the streets gets a pass. It's almost like this election is shaping up to be church, work and school versus rioting, looting and vandalism, or in the words of Biden and the Democrats, peaceful protesting."
Donald Jr. continued, "Anarchists have been flooding our streets and Democrat mayors are ordering the police to stand down. Small businesses across America, many of them minority-owned, are being torched by mobs. The Democrat mayors pretend it's not happening."
Some of this description was caricature. But even as he spoke, the more-unsettling aspects that were rooted in reality were playing out in Kenosha, Wis., where a second night of demonstrations that at times turned violent was unfolding in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake by an unidentified officer as he entered his SUV that left him paralyzed from the waist down.
A few hours after the younger Trump spoke, buildings in the largely black neighborhood of Uptown's business district were set on fire. Mr. Blake's mother, Julia Jackson, told reporters, "I've noticed a lot of damage. It doesn't reflect my son or my family."
But one resident told the New York Times that burning buildings was an acceptable loss if it brought police reforms, saying, "It's unfortunate, but it has to be done."
Any guess on which of those clashing sentiments is likely to be highlighted in Trump campaign ads full of footage of the destruction there and elsewhere?
And so the following morning, I asked State Sen. Diane Savino whether it was possible that the President, for all his mismanagement and contempt for the rule of law when it got in his way, and the cruelty of some of his policies and his obnoxious personality, could win re-election.
"Of course it's conceivable," she said. "Democrats can always screw things up."
Saw 2016 Loss Coming
Ms. Savino is a Democrat who for nearly two decades has represented Staten Island and a slice of western Brooklyn in what may be the city's most conservative Senate district. Her opinion on this subject is valuable because in March 2016, when Hillary Clinton was beginning to shake off Bernie Sanders en route to the Democratic nomination, she said she thought Mr. Trump might win that November.
She based that opinion not on white voters who eventually helped the Republican win the borough by a 2-1 margin over Ms. Clinton while she walloped him in the rest of the city, but on what Ms. Savino, a former vice president of the city's social-service workers local of District Council 37, was hearing from black transit workers disillusioned with the Democratic Party.
This time, she said, Democrats are strongly committed to defeating Mr. Trump, more so than they are to Mr. Biden, and Republicans are at least as determined to re-elect him, while "independents are not married to either one of them."
Alluding to the far-smaller turnout for Ms. Clinton among Democrats four years ago in comparison to the support Mr. Obama got in the two previous elections, Senator Savino mused, "Do the Democrats do the same thing they did in 2016 and decide that the perfect is the enemy of the good?"
The opening two days of the Republican Convention, she said, gave a hint of Mr. Trump's re-election strategy by showcasing numerous blacks, from elected officials like U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina; to athletes like Herschel Walker, the ex-Cowboys running back who played for the New Jersey Generals of the U.S. Football League when Mr. Trump owned the team in the mid-1980s, to ordinary African-American workers and business executives.
Antidote for Suburbs Ads
Mr. Trump has made a thinly veiled racial appeal to white suburban voters by highlighting his opposition to low-income housing in their neighborhoods, and played the birther card again, this time at the expense of Kamala Harris rather than Mr. Obama. But those black faces filling TV screens during the convention, Ms. Savino said, were meant to tell white independents—even more so than African-American moderate voters—"Well, he can't be a racist, look at all those black people supporting him."
Regarding Donald Jr's framing the contest as between those who believe in "church, work and school versus rioting, looting and vandalism," she said, "We knew that they were gonna focus on this."
Overcoming that line of attack, Ms. Savino continued, should not be an imposing task: "You can focus on police reform and accountability and still condemn destruction of property."
While Mr. Biden did so back in June in the early days of the disturbances in many cities following the May 25 killing of George Floyd that produced murder charges against Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, neither he nor other Democrats raised the subject during their convention. Asked whether she expected the party's nominee to do so over the last two months of the campaign, Ms. Savino said, "He won't. The Democratic Party is afraid to have that conversation."
She continued, "You saw something similar during the budget debate here" when City Council Members were bullied by protesters into cutting $1 billion from the NYPD's budget—which didn't satisfy many of them, and approving a bill subjecting police officers to criminal charges if, in subduing suspects, they compressed their diaphragms.
Mayor de Blasio acknowledged having misgivings about that bill—which was vehemently opposed by top NYPD officials—even as he signed it into law July 15, and by that time so had some Council supporters. But some of them are still hearing footsteps on their left, Ms. Savino said, pointing out that Ben Kallos quickly backed down after a tweet appearing under his name decried graffiti defacing public property as creating "leeway for property crimes and gun violence."
Panicked by Breaking Glass
That was countered by attorney Sarah Steiner tweeting, "Someone just discovered broken-windows policing theory."
As the New York Post reported Aug. 22, Mr. Kallos responded by claiming "it was an error on my team's part to let language like this go out under my name. I do not believe that graffiti leads to violence in any way...I do not support over-policing for minor infractions and never have."
Mr. Kallos, the Mayor and Council Speaker Corey Johnson have never enjoyed strong support among police unions. Until recently, Mr. Biden did, which was a big reason that the National Association of Police Organizations, which this year endorsed Mr. Trump, backed Mr. Obama for President in both 2008 and 2012.
Indications had been that the Biden campaign, at least at this point, is not looking to wade into the controversy, believing that voters are focused far more on the mounting death toll from the coronavirus and Mr. Trump's shaky handling of that crisis and his outlandish and overly optimistic statements about getting it under control.
But Ms. Savino believes it could become a wedge issue among undecided voters in a number of battleground states, and said of her party, "Is this what we've come to: that we're afraid to say that destruction of private property is a bad thing?"
New York Won't Decide It
She said she wasn't surprised that two political consultants dismissed the impact of Mr. Trump having gotten the Police Benevolent Association endorsement Aug. 14, with one arguing that Mr. Biden was actually better off politically without it.
(One Democratic operative, who was unwilling to be quoted by name, contended that the PBA's nod bubbled up from the rank and file, imagining cops angry at their recent treatment by city and state officials telling union President Pat Lynch, "People are calling us murderers. This guy is saying nice things about us—you better endorse him if you want to stay president.")
The endorsement had limited value here, Ms. Savino said, despite Mr. Trump telling "the New York Post a couple of weeks ago that New York is in play. No it's not. He'll do well upstate and in parts of Long Island and here in Staten Island, but he's not winning here. He's not winning California, and he's not winning Illinois."
But, she continued, the police-union support, which is likely to extend to other law-enforcement unions here and in other parts of the nation, could make a difference in some toss-up states, particularly those like Minnesota and Wisconsin that have been wracked by days or weeks of protests that sometimes featured violence. It was set off by excessive force being used by police but was countered by destruction and looting that didn't seem to have much relationship to achieving social justice.
Mr. Biden, with long ties to both the black community and the police, would seem uniquely well-positioned to thread the needle in addressing the issues—in stark contrast to Mr. Trump—without the risk of alienating part of his voting base. That path could be eased considerably by evoking his long relationship with John Lewis, the Georgia Congressman whose death from cancer earlier this summer reinforced the degree to which his life, first as a civil-rights activist starting when he was a teenager and later as a legislator, had made him, as much as anyone, the soul of America.
(Mr. Trump, characteristically, skipped the funeral and memorial service for Mr. Lewis while pointing out that the Congressman hadn't come to his inauguration.)
The former Vice President could make the case that while the late Congressman supported the Black Lives Matter movement, his advocacy had been grounded in the principles of nonviolence, even after absorbing fearsome beatings by racist police and other segregationists that led some old colleagues to marvel that he had survived his 20s, never mind lived to the ripe age of 80.
He acted, Mr. Biden could say, from the belief that militant rhetoric in the name of a righteous cause amounted to finding "good trouble." Rioting and looting, then justifying such actions as the result of frustration or a form of reparations, did not.
A few hours after Ms. Savino made her remarks, the Vice President took that step--without the need to channel Mr. Lewis--to address the Blake shooting from both sides.
"What I saw on that video makes me sick," he said. "Once again a black man--Jacob Blake--has been shot by the police, in broad daylight, with the whole world watching. Is this what we want America to be? Is this the country we should be?"
He then shifted gears, saying, "We need to end the violence--and peacefully come together to demand justice. But burning down communities is not protest. It's needless violence that endangers lives, that guts businesses and shutters businesses that serve the community. That's wrong."
The force of the emotion the former Vice President summoned for his convention speech was a revelation. It stood in contrast with the caution he had displayed for much of the campaign once his clearing a path to the Democratic nomination was quickly followed by the pandemic's dramatically altering the traditional rituals of the presidential grind.
For the moment, it has him with a solid-if-not-impregnable lead. But the same could be said about another cautious campaigner four years ago who found herself unable to adapt to rapidly changing conditions in the final weeks of the race, perhaps because polls continued to show her leading in the popular vote. It turned out they weren't wrong, at least on a nationwide basis, but that's not what decides who wins the presidency.
But the decisiveness with which Mr. Biden covered both sides of the controversy in Kenosha offered hope that in his case, lightning might not strike twice.
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