WILMINGTON, Del. — Kamala Harris accepted the Democratic nomination for vice president Wednesday night, cementing her status as a leader in a party staking its future on building a diverse coalition of voters as the first Black woman on a major party ticket.
She addressed the Democratic National Convention's third night after former President Barack Obama, another barrier breaker, warned that American democracy itself was at risk if President Donald Trump wins reelection this fall.
Harris, a 55-year-old California senator, issued an urgent plea for voters of all colors to rally behind Joe Biden and find a way to vote despite concerns about the pandemic and postal slowdowns.
“Donald Trump’s failure of leadership has cost lives and livelihoods,” Harris, the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, said in remarks from a largely empty arena near Biden’s Delaware home. She said she shares his vision of America, “where all are welcome, no matter what we look like, where we come from, or who we love.”
Harris closed a night in which some of the most prominent Democrats outlined – in remarkably frank terms – their views of the consequences of a Trump reelection. Obama, speaking from Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, warned that American democracy was at risk of faltering. Hillary Clinton, the party’s 2016 nominee, said lives are at stake in an election being conduct against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic.
The third night of the Democrats’ four-day convention focused on the party’s commitment to progressive values on issues like gun violence and climate change, while highlighting speakers most likely to connect with women and all people of color, voters whose energy this fall could ultimately decide the outcome.
Democrats targeted Trump's policies and personality throughout, casting him as cruel in his treatment of immigrants, disinterested in the nation’s climate crisis and over his head in virtually all of the nation’s most pressing challenges.
Above all, there was an urgent focus on voting.
Harris called on supporters to have a specific “voting plan” to overcome obstacles raised by the pandemic and a postal slowdown Democrats and some Republicans blame on Trump.
“When we vote things change, when we vote things get better, when we vote we address the need for all people to be treated with dignity and respect,” Harris said.
Just 76 days before the election, Biden faces the difficult task of energizing each of the disparate factions that make up the modern-day Democratic Party – a coalition that spans generation, race and ideology. And this fall voters must deal with concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic that has created health risks for those who want to vote in person.
Biden leads many polls, but his supporters report being motivated far more by antipathy toward Trump than genuine excitement about Biden, a 77-year-old white man who has spent nearly a half century in politics.
Democrats hope that Harris and Obama in particular can help bridge the divide between those reassured by Biden’s establishment credentials and those craving bolder change.
The pandemic has forced Biden's team to abandon the traditional convention format in favor of an all-virtual affair that has eliminated much of the pomp and circumstance that typically defines political conventions.
The Democratic convention will build to a finale Thursday night when Biden will deliver his acceptance speech in a mostly empty convention hall near his Delaware home.
And after two nights that featured several Republicans, Democrats on Wednesday emphasized their party’s values on issues like climate change and gun violence, issues that particularly resonate with younger voters.
On guns, Biden wants to repeal a law shielding firearm manufacturers from liability lawsuits, impose universal background checks for purchases and ban the manufacture and sale of assault weapons and high capacity magazines. On climate, Biden has proposed a $2 trillion plan to invest in clean energy and end carbon emissions from U.S. power plants by 2035, even though his proposals don’t go as far as activists' preferred “Green New Deal.”
A face of the Democrats' support for gun control, former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords reflected on her own journey of pain and recovery from a severe brain injury nearly a decade after being shot in the head while meeting with constituents. She urged America to support Biden.
“I struggle to speak, but I have not lost my voice,” Giffords said. “Vote, vote, vote.”
Next week it's Trump's turn.
The president, who abandoned plans to host his convention in North Carolina and Florida, is expected to break tradition and accept his nomination from the White House lawn.
Trump spent much of this week hosting campaign events in battleground states in an attempt to distract from the Democrats' virtual festivities. While he did not travel on Wednesday, the Republican president railed against Biden and his party at a press conference while praising a conspiracy theory group that claims Trump's opponents have links to satanism and child sex trafficking.
“We’re saving the world from a radical left philosophy that will destroy this country,” Trump said. "And when this country is gone, the rest of the world would follow.”
Hyperbole and praise for far-right extremists has become a hallmark of Trump’s presidency, which has inflamed tensions at home and alienated allies around the world.
Voting was a dominant theme for Democrats on Wednesday.
Harris insisted that Democrats to have a specific “voting plan” to overcome the obstacles to voting raised by the coronavirus pandemic and postal slowdowns.
She warned that the nation is at a critical point,struggling under Trump’s “chaos,” “incompetence”and “callousness.”
“We can do better and deserve so much more,” Harris said. “We must elect a president who will bring something different, something better, and do the important work. A president who will bring all of us together — Black, White, Latino, Asian, Indigenous — to achieve the future we collectively want.”
Hillary Clinton, the first woman nominated for president by a major party, spoke ahead of Obama, the nation’s first Black president, and Harris, Biden’s running mate and the first Black woman on a major party ticket.
“For four years, people have said to me, ‘I didn’t realize how dangerous he was.’ ‘I wish I could go back and do it over.’ Or worst, ‘I should have voted,’” Clinton said. “Well, this can’t be another woulda coulda shoulda election.”
She added: “Vote like our lives and livelihoods are on the line, because they are.”
Obama, speaking earlier in the night, hoped to serve as a bridge between those reassured by Biden’s lengthy resume and more moderate record, and a younger generation of Democrats agitating for more dramatic change.
He warned that American democracy might not survive another four years of Trump. He urged voters to “embrace your own responsibility as citizens – to make sure that the basic tenets of our democracy endure. Because that’s what is at stake right now. Our democracy.”
Obama confidants say that the former president’s support for Biden is unequivocal, but he does worry about enthusiasm among younger voters, particularly younger voters of color. Democrats concede that one of the reasons Trump won the presidency in 2016 was because those voters didn't show up in the same large numbers as when Obama was on the ballot.
Beyond the carefully scripted confines of the virtual convention, there were modest signs of tension between the moderate and progressive wings of Biden’s Democratic Party.
In particular, some progressives complained that pro-Biden Republicans such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich have been featured more prominently than the party’s younger progressive stars like New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Climate activists also complained that the party appeared ready to drop a provision in the platform that calls for an end to fossil fuel industry subsidies and tax breaks.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a favorite of progressives for demanding bold change, only spoke for around five minutes.
It remains to be seen whether the unconventional convention will give Biden the momentum he’s looking for.
Preliminary estimates show that television viewership for the first night of the virtual convention was down compared with the opening of Hillary Clinton’s onsite nominating party four years ago.