The messages in the Zoom chat were snide at first, but not despondent. One person observed that the Democrats would rather listen to young people singing the national anthem than to their political opinions. Another noted that the event felt like a highly produced infomercial. Just 30 minutes in, a mustachioed man with a palm-tree Zoom background gave up on the whole production. “I’ve got to get some sleep,” he wrote to the group. “I’ve got Bernie taped.”
For two hours last night, about 20 members of the Ohio chapter of Our Revolution, the political organization spun out of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, watched the Democratic National Convention’s kickoff with, it seemed, varying amounts of bitterness. Some watched with their camera turned off, as speaker after speaker extolled the virtues of Joe Biden, while others could be seen hunkered over their computer in some dark corner of their home.
But when John Kasich, the former Republican governor of Ohio, appeared on-screen, the chat descended briefly into despair. “Oh lord,” someone wrote. “Drinking now,” said another. A third person could muster only a digital sound: “UUUGGGHHHHHHH .”
The parade of GOP defectors who spoke last night was meant to demonstrate the bipartisan solidarity behind Biden, and to show anti-Trump Republicans and swing voters nationwide that the Democratic tent is a place where they will be not merely tolerated, but celebrated. The former vice president’s team wants “silent Biden voters” to know that they are not alone in crossing party lines to support the presumptive Democratic nominee, Representative Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, a chair of Biden’s campaign, explained on a press call yesterday. Michelle Obama made national unity the theme of her well-received speech too.
But to some progressives, including the Ohioans I watched with, this outreach to Republicans confirms their worst fears about a potential Biden administration. They worry that Democrats have abandoned core party values in their effort to oust Trump, and they fear that by welcoming Never Trumpers into the fold, the Democratic Party will become more conservative. If Biden becomes president thanks to a coalition full of moderates and former Republicans, they ask, will these be the voters he listens to on the biggest policy questions facing the country—the voters he works the hardest to please? Their protestations are the growing pains of a faction that couldn’t build a coalition big enough to make Sanders the Democratic nominee, and is still grappling with the reality that it represents a minority of the country.
Biden’s recent actions have given progressives reason to believe that he may—at least on occasion—be their ally. The former vice president adopted Elizabeth Warren’s bankruptcy plan; he’s welcomed counsel from Sanders allies; and he announced a $2 trillion climate plan that was lauded by influential progressive groups. But many rank-and-file leftists are still struggling to warm up to Biden, and despite many speakers’ focus on racial justice and workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, last night’s lineup did little to help convince the Ohio progressives that he’s prioritizing their policy goals.
“Now that they’re choosing to explicitly court the centrist and conservative vote, that shows that there is not going to be a lot of room” to move Biden left, Eric Deamer, a 47-year-old former Sanders volunteer from Lakewood, Ohio, told me in an interview after the Zoom call.
Progressives I’ve spoken to do admit that persuading moderate Republicans to vote for Biden could be key to unseating Trump in November. But Kasich, one of four Republican speakers last night, was too much for many leftists across the country. The former governor—who spoke for two minutes about America being at a crossroads, while standing at a literal crossroads—once fought (unsuccessfully) to strip public employees of collective-bargaining power. In 2018, he signed one of the country’s most restrictive abortion laws.
In Ohio, Kasich “is the enemy among Democrats,” Deamer said. “To see him reincarnated as this nice, middle-of-the-road guy”—and occupying a time slot that could have gone to a progressive—is “a real slap in the face.” Kasich, a former U.S. representative who worked closely with Newt Gingrich in the ’90s, billed himself in his address as a patriotic pragmatist who wants to save the country from Trump, and he offered assurances to other Republicans that Biden will not make a “sharp left” turn if they vote for him. After Kasich finished his speech, Deamer posted in the Zoom chat: “The Kasich thing killed me. I am now dead.”
Kasich defended his planned appearance in an interview with BuzzFeed News before the convention, noting that just “because AOC gets outsized publicity doesn’t mean she represents the Democratic Party.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who will be addressing the convention tonight for one minute, responded in a fundraising email: “An anti-choice, anti-worker Republican does not get to decide who represents the Democratic Party.”
The other three Republicans who delivered remarks were former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, the billionaire Quibi CEO Meg Whitman, and former Representative Susan Molinari of New York. Josie Moore, a Cleveland-based copy editor on the Our Revolution call, teared up when she explained her frustrations to me in a private breakout room on Zoom. To see Republicans “being given such a prominent speaking role when the convention is such an identifying event for Democrats …” she trailed off. “I feel like I’ve been abandoned by my party.”
That Biden could be more beholden to moderates is a reasonable fear for progressives to have, given the Democratic Party’s changing makeup, says Dave Wasserman, an elections analyst at “The Cook Political Report.” While Sanders and his allies have made significant gains in intra-party policy debates, overall “Democrats have become a more moderate party in the past four years, because there’s a new name for suburban Republicans who don’t like Trump—and that’s Democrats,” Wasserman told me.
Two high-profile groups run largely by former Republican political operatives, the Lincoln Project and Republican Voters Against Trump, are trying to encourage even more GOP defections. To progressives, the risk of this Republican involvement is that it will nudge Biden back to the place where he’s most comfortable: the middle. “The concept that these [former Republicans] are somehow to be trusted and have any [intention] at all of keeping with the proposed Democratic agenda is preposterous,” Levon Siler, the lead organizer for Our Revolution Cincinnati, told me in a separate call toward the end of last night’s programming. Siler and other progressives argue that the economic and health crises facing the nation require massive and immediate government interventions—the kind that many moderates and former Republicans don’t support. “The alignment of the Democratic Party with Republicans undermines any serious overtures on [Biden’s] part to enact these vital reforms,” Siler wrote in a follow-up text.
But before the Democratic Party can do anything, Biden has to win the election. And as far as campaign strategies go, casting a wide net for supporters has proved effective: Assembling a broad base of ideologically diverse supporters was exactly how Biden defeated Sanders in this year’s Democratic primary. “In order to win and govern, you need the middle as well as your own party,” Donna Brazile, the former acting chair of the Democratic National Committee, told me. “This is the moment for Democrats to appeal to more than simply the base of the party or more than just a faction of its supporters.” Tim Miller, Republican Voters Against Trump’s political director and the communications director for Jeb Bush’s 2016 campaign, scoffed when I told him that some progressives were concerned about Republican defectors hijacking their party. “Wouldn’t you want to have more moderate elected Democrats than a nationalist, bigoted, far-right reality-TV-show host?” he replied.
Around 10:30 p.m. ET, when Sanders finally appeared on-screen in front of a large stack of chopped wood, only a handful of people remained on the call. They smiled wistfully in their little Zoom squares, and they guessed about the symbolism of the firewood—maybe he chopped it himself? someone suggested. But no one commented when Sanders praised Biden’s pledge to raise the federal minimum wage to $15, and no one cheered at his guarantee that Biden would transition the U.S. economy to 100 percent clean energy. No one said anything when Sanders promised that Biden would do his utmost as president to “move the country forward.” Even he couldn’t make them believe it.