Let’s get one thing out of the way: former first lady Michelle Obama gave the speech of the evening at the opening of the Democratic National Convention Monday night. Emphatically delivered, unsparing in its critique of President Trump, insistent in its focus on the importance of voting, and overflowing with empathy and compassion, Obama showed why she is one of the most effective political speakers not just in the Democratic Party, but in the Obama family. In a night defined by the awkwardness and uncertainty of holding a national convention in virtual form, Obama showed how to deliver an intimate and powerful political speech with no audience.
That said, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont delivered the most politically important speech of the night.
Presumptive nominee Joe Biden comes into the convention with a significant polling lead over Trump. While clearly any presidential candidate will try to expand their coalition (hence the decision to give Republican John Kasich a prime-time speaking slot), Biden will probably win in November if he can maintain the support he has. The last thing he wants is a distraction, like the kind Hillary Clinton had in 2016 when some of Sanders’ delegates had to be dragged kicking and screaming to support her candidacy.
Sanders helped ensure that won’t happen by making clear to his supporters that they need to join him in getting behind Biden.
“This election is the most important in the modern history of this country,” Sanders said. “In response to the unprecedented crises we face, we need an unprecedented response — a movement, like never before, of people who are prepared to stand up and fight for democracy and decency — and against greed, oligarchy, and bigotry. And we need Joe Biden as our next president.”
He warned about “authoritarianism” in America if Trump wins another term and reminded his supporters that all the progress they have made in raising the profile of his policy agenda will be lost if Trump is reelected. He checked off all the places where he and Biden agree — raising the minimum wage to $15, funding universal pre-K and paid family leave, making it “easier for workers to join unions,” and rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure. Sanders also acknowledged the places where he and Biden don’t agree — namely Medicare for All — but he still praised Biden’s approach toward expanding health care coverage. On a night in which the professional politicians delivered mediocre addresses that were largely overshadowed by private citizens, Sanders was the exception to the rule.
Above all, Sanders made clear to his supporters that there is no daylight between him and Biden, and that the stakes of this election are too high for anyone to stay home in November. For a nominee intent on rallying the disparate wings of his party behind him, Biden couldn’t ask for much more. Granted, even if a group of insurgent Sanders backers wanted to make trouble, that’s not an easy thing to do at a virtual convention. But the focus of any national convention — especially after a tough primary fight — is to ensure that the party is united and speaking with one voice. On day one, Biden achieved that goal.
Now the next several nights can be spent building on Biden’s lead and working to expand his support. Even if that is unsuccessful — and with an electorate as polarized as it is right now, it’s hard to imagine that Biden will win over many new voters — he can take solace from the fact that he leads a united party.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.