Welcome to the Democratic National Convention, where you’ll meet the most exciting new voices in the Democratic party. Like Secretary of State John Kerry, your Democratic nominee from 16 years ago! Or former President Bill Clinton, clocking in for his fifth convention since he was President in the 1990s! Or Michael Bloomberg, who spent a cool $1 billion on his failed presidential bid to eke out a big win in American Samoa!
Former Vice President Joe Biden, one of the most experienced Democrats and the oldest nominee in history, has spoken of himself as a “bridge” to the next generation of Democratic leaders. But after more than three years of nearly unprecedented grassroots activism in the Democratic Party, with a new crop of young rising stars shining across the country, few of those have been given prominent roles in this week’s convention. It’s like a band that wrote a whole new album but, when it came time to perform at Madison Square Garden, stuck to the safe, familiar hits instead.
Of course, the schedule is especially tough this year, and some of the programming has yet to be announced. Normally, the days-long convention would feature hours of speeches, giving plenty of time for both new faces and established leaders to have their moment in the spotlight. But because of COVID-19, the Convention is entirely virtual, programming is confined to just two hours per night, and major speeches will be as short as two minutes long. So Democrats had to choose between highlighting familiar figures from the Party’s past or elevating new leaders who could represent its future. Mostly, they chose the past.
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“They’re going with a ‘biggest names’ strategy, and our biggest names are all about the past, not about the future. Which I just think is a really bad message right now,” says Democratic strategist Jess Morales Rocketto. “It’s so weird to me that we’re doing ‘America’s Throwback’ convention versus ‘A Look Forward.'”
The focus on returning to familiar names and demonstrating bipartisan support over elevating fresh faces has contributed to quiet grumbling across the party. Progressives are annoyed at the inclusion of multiple Republicans, such as former Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, and say that the Convention seems to be more about promoting the Democratic Party as anti-Trump than articulating the party’s future.
“The younger generation is trying to define and pull what the Democratic party should stand for, and the party leadership just wants to focus on why they’re better than the other team,” says Waleed Shahid, communications director for the Justice Democrats, which helps elect young Progressives. “The Convention is just: ‘we’re Team Democrat and we’re better than Team Republican.'”
Some Democratic operatives say the party is missing an opportunity to elevate talent that might not have a national platform. The schedule, for instance, doesn’t have room for a young, mostly unknown Democrat to make his or her mark on the party the way Barack Obama did with his speech at the 2004 convention. “If you’re elevating Meg Whitman over any number of the incredible state legislators and gubernatorial candidates, you have a very different perspective of what the goal of a convention should be,” says Amanda Litman, executive director of Run for Something, which recruits and trains millennial Democrats to run for office. “The most important thing you can do is give the up-and-coming Democrats a platform.”
The DNC isn’t entirely overlooking the energetic new generation of Democrats. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is speaking on Tuesday, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is speaking on Thursday, and Andrew Yang was recently added to the schedule. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, both new to the national scene, are also scheduled to speak. There will also be a joint Keynote address given by 17 rising stars on Tuesday night, including Stacey Abrams, who came within a hair of winning Georgia’s governor’s race in 2018. Abrams will be joined by Texas Congressman Collin Allred, Pennsylvania Congressmen Conor Lamb and Brendan Boyle, Pennsylvania State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta and Michigan State Rep. Mari Manoogian, along with many others.
“We couldn’t be more thrilled that the country will be hearing not only from some of our party’s most popular leaders, but also some of our up-and-coming stars who represent a diverse group of ideas and perspectives from all across the country,” says Chris Meagher, deputy communications director at the DNC.
But even this compromise has irked some Democrats, who argue that Abrams in particular — who has become a powerful advocate for voting rights, a role model for Black women in politics, and a leader for Southern Democrats — is exactly the type of new Democrat who should have her own convention spot. “I love Mari Manoogian and Malcolm Kenyatta, I am so excited they’re getting a spotlight,” says Litman, whose organization endorsed both legislators. But, she notes, “They are not on the same level as Stacey Abrams.”
Top Latino organizers say they’re disappointed with the lack of Latino speakers in primetime speaking slots, and particularly irritated at the absence of Julian Castro, the only Latino candidate to run for the Democratic nomination in 2020.
Some operatives said they were concerned that the party’s backward-facing lineup undermines Biden’s own goals. “Biden framed himself as this bridge to the next generation, and in many ways the speaker lineup for the DNC doesn’t represent that,” says Sawyer Hackett, a senior advisor to Castro. “It’s disappointing to see that there are as many Republican speakers on the first night as there are Latinx speakers for the entire week.” Castro had not been asked to speak, Hackett said.
Other Democrats said that the focus on the establishment was just as well, because the DNC is no longer the arbiter of political relevance. Conversations about the future of the Democratic party aren’t happening in party Zoom calls anymore; they’re happening in the streets. “The pathway to influence as a young up-and-coming member of Congress used to be something like a major slot at the DNC,” says a top aide to a well-known new Member of Congress. “That’s no longer the case. That’s not how we’re building political power anymore.”
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