The Democratic National Convention has been free of the excitement of crowds and many of the spontaneous encounters of a traditional “Super Bowl of politics,” but it has had its historic moments.
Two of them happened Wednesday night not just with Kamala Harris accepting the vice presidential nomination but with former President Barack Obama delivering a speech heavy in blistering criticism about his successor. No less than the future of democracy is at stake, Obama said.
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“We’re witnessing history to see a former president step out and make those kind of remarks about an incumbent president tells you about the crossroads we are at as a country and as a democracy,” said Robert Costa, the moderator and managing editor of PBS’ Washington Week, national reporter for The Washington Post and an MSNBC contributor.
“The divides in this country that I am covering are beyond partisan,” he said. “They are fundamental, and my whole MO is to stay cool and to capture history as it happens, because we are undoubtedly covering history.”
On Thursday evening, more history will be made as Joe Biden accepts the Democratic nomination in a speech that will define the direction he wants to take the country — and the message he wants voters to hear in the final 2½ months until the election.
Costa spoke with Deadline earlier Thursday about the Democrats’ convention and what to expect at next week’s the Republican National Convention. That event might end up being more unusual than what Democrats put forward, as President Donald Trump accepts the nomination from the South Lawn of the White House.
DEADLINE: This virtual convention is a big experiment for the Democrats. What do you think has worked and not worked?
ROBERT COSTA: Well, they’ve done their best, as will as the Republicans, to try to still have a convention. But it’s not a physical convening, so it lacks that grassroots energy — though Democrats have tried to show ordinary voters and different stories, and they have been packaged in a powerful way. And sometimes the video packages this week are more powerful than a speech would be. People can get nervous at a lectern during a convention. Things can go wrong. But to be able to have some of these video packages, it has enabled the Democrats to produce their message in a sharper way, to bring things into focus.
You really want to see at a convention how the party embraces the ticket, and I don’t blame the Democrats or the Republicans for not being able to do this because of the pandemic. But to see the silence as Senator Harris spoke, for example, on Wednesday night — this was a moment for her to be the first Black woman on a major ticket, first South Asian woman, and the crowd wasn’t there to welcome her. But in a strange way, it all fits to the moment in American politics, the age of the pandemic when everyone’s working from home and social distancing is the norm.
DEADLINE: There has been so much emphasis this week on Joe Biden’s character, on Kamala Harris’s character, on Donald Trump’s character at this convention. Are Democrats missing something? You tweeted out something that you were waiting to hear anything about the public health insurance option.
COSTA: This convention has clearly been focused on making the American people more aware of who Joe Biden is, and about making a second Trump term seem like a threat to American democracy. Those have been the running themes of this convention. I have not heard as much, at least by Thursday morning, about what the policy agenda would be on Capitol Hill. To be sure, a lot of that will depend on who controls Congress, if it’s divided or not again, in 2021. But if Senator [Bernie] Sanders was the nominee, you’d certainly be hearing about health care and Medicare for All.
And character is driving this election for the Democrats, much more than policy. Policy has a place, and it has a centrality at times, but it’s character and the future of the country better than the driving forces of this convention and this entire Biden-Harris campaign. And for some of my Democratic sources, they say this is the way to win over the suburbs, this is the way to win back Trump states. Don’t go far, far to the left on policy. But the interesting thing is, at the same time, Biden is being praised by Sanders, and others, for pledging to have a transformational presidency on the economic and health areas. And so you see a commitment from Biden on policy that does bring him to the left, and that brings him in accordance with some aspects of Senator Sanders’ agenda. But in terms of the presentation to the public, the policy is there, but front and center is [Biden’s] character and the future.
DEADLINE: Do you think that’s by design?
COSTA: It is by design. It is also by the nature of who Biden is. Biden did not mount this campaign to mount an ideological project. Biden is running a campaign that’s about removing President Trump from office. He says he was inspired by Charlottesville, that comes up again and again. He sees the character and soul of the country at risk. And that’s his mission. Ideology is a component of his candidacy but not the nucleus of his candidacy, and the convention reflects that whole Biden approach.
DEADLINE: How do you this is coming across to the viewer? When you condense a convention into these two hours, it goes by pretty quickly, but is it perhaps more of an infomercial?
COSTA: It’s an infomercial in part just due to the circumstances, but it has a raw quality at times, the gaps in the technical direction of the production. You still hear the director telling people to “go, go, go,” to talk. For someone who does television from time to time, I chuckle because I understand that kind of energy and the tension in a TV production. This is not an entirely smooth ride because everyone’s trying to figure out how to make this a virtual convention that seems seamless, that still has aspects of a crowd, even though it’s virtual. And so the messiness of it actually gives it a little bit more authenticity.
DEADLINE: As President Obama was speaking, Trump tweeted out in response to his speech. Were you surprised at all that we heard from him in real time.
COSTA: No. not at all. I have known Trump for a long time. He cannot resist weighing in. And he can’t wait for the Republican convention to start, I’m told. His whole character is to always jump into the spotlight whenever possible. And he monitors television constantly. And so when he sees President Obama there, he wants to make his statement about President Obama. But this was a rare moment where the TV could not be changed to his channel, to his tweet. This was a week for the Democrats, for at least two hours in primetime, to make their pitch to Americans, regardless of what President Trump was tweeting at the time. And you’re going to see him try to yank back that spotlight next week.
DEADLINE: What do you hear about what we’ll see next week at the Republican convention?
COSTA: I keep hearing from my Republican sources that it’s going to be a celebration of President Trump, and it’s not going to be so much about a second-term agenda. It’s going to be about what he’s accomplished, in his own view, and a lot of Republicans touting him. There’s a bit of a debate in some private Trump circles about whether this is the right approach, whether they should put more of an onus on the policy in the second term, on the economy, on the health front. And we will hear from all that, but at the end of the day, President Trump wants to be the one in control of this convention, at the center of it. Four years ago, Paul Manafort was running the ship. Now it’s President Trump in total control of his party and his convention, and that will be reflected every day. And to do it from the White House shows you he’s running, as they used to say, a “front porch” or “Rose Garden” campaign, this time literally because of the pandemic, and to surround themselves with the imagery and the symbolism of the White House and the presidency to try to counter the Democrats.
DEADLINE: Do you have any sense of how this will look, compared to the Democrats’ convention this week, which is heavy on celebrity, heavy on these pre-taped packages.
COSTA: This is going to be heavy on President Trump. Heavy on fireworks. Heavy on the pageantry of the presidency. And it’s all about President Trump and putting him on a pedestal and saying to the country, “This person has done all of these things,” in his own view. And it’s also going to be a dark message, I’m told, in terms of talking about cities across the country, about racial unrest, about immigration. He’s going to paint a bleak picture of the Democrats, and he’s going to respond to the Democratic convention, which has had this message of seriousness on the pandemic, which has talked about diversity frequently. President Trump is going to respond to that Democratic convention salvo though with his own [message] that casts the Democrats in a grim light.
DEADLINE: What do you expect Joe Biden to say tonight?
COSTA: People are going to be talking about, “Did Biden make the sale for Biden?” That’s the looming question over the entire Biden campaign. Democrats are motivated to vote against President Trump — are they motivated to vote for Joe Biden and Senator Harris? That could be the difference in the election, who really comes out on the Democratic side. Is the enthusiasm there, not just to get rid of President Trump but to have a Biden presidency? That’s why it was important for Biden to get Secretary [Hillary] Clinton to give him a cosign, to President Obama to remind Democrats about the stakes. Senator Harris to lay out her story. And now for Biden, this creature of American politics going back decades, to reintroduce himself as someone who’s not just a former senator or former vice president, but perhaps the future president of the United States. What does he want to do with this moment and with power should he win it? And if it’s all about President Trump, that will tell you that this is a referendum election in his eyes, and that’s how it will proceed. But look to him to really talk about some issues as well. What he says and what he doesn’t say will tell you a lot about how he’s going to close this campaign.
DEADLINE: During this week there has been so much emphasis on people’s individual encounters with Joe Biden, what it’s like meeting him. What was your first impression?
COSTA: I grew up in Pennsylvania outside of Philadelphia. I know what it’s like to be from Delaware. I have been to Scranton, Pennsylvania. He has that Middle Atlantic, Northeastern personality of someone who at times talks fast, has a casual way about him, that comes out of a working-class background, middle-class background. It’s just a certain kind of person who comes out of that area, the Philly-Delaware area. I’m one of them, and I know it. It’s Joe Biden, it’s Jake Tapper, it’s Chris Matthews, it’s Ed Rendell. These are the kind of people that I know from that area, and they have a certain zeal for politics. Joe Biden loves politics, loves the game, he loves people, and we’ll see if that side of him comes out tonight, even though it’s a serious time, maybe a somber message.
DEADLINE: We’ve seen how the pandemic has limited the conventions and campaign appearances. Will that make the fall debates even more important?
COSTA: Because the conventions are so low-key, the debates become even more important. And it’s a chance for Biden to really take on President Trump directly. That’s why you may not do so much in a speech to lay out every single point. But the debates come with a lot of risk for both sides. If you’re not scoring points, if you seem a little bit off, it could put an impression in the minds of voters. Many more voters will likely watch the debates than the convention. There’s an aspect of the political brawl that always draws more eyeballs. So the conventions are the first inning of an intense nine inning political game that’s to come in and then in the next 70 days or so.
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