WASHINGTON, D.C. — For nearly three minutes at this week’s Democratic National Convention, Cindy McCain recounted Joe Biden’s friendship with her late husband, John McCain, the Arizona senator and former Republican presidential candidate. Colin Powell, President George W. Bush’s secretary of state, praised Biden for two minutes. Former GOP Govs. John Kasich of Ohio and Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey also got prominent speaking slots.
Meanwhile, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the most dynamic young stars of the Democratic Party, spoke for just 60 seconds.
The GOP’s prominent billing reflects one of Biden’s core arguments in the closing months of the campaign: He can appeal to and work with Republicans to bring stability to a Washington paralyzed by the chaos of Donald Trump’s presidency. But progressive Democrats seeking to exert influence over Biden argue that such outreach risks undermining the party’s principles and harkens back to an era of bipartisan cooperation that no longer exists.
“It’s fine for Republicans and Democrats to say we disagree on many issues, but Donald Trump is a threat to American democracy and we must join together to elect Joe Biden,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “It’s not OK for the Democratic convention to give more time to Republicans than Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or to approve John Kasich’s pre-taped video bashing the ‘left’ and implying that Joe Biden will not make good on the ambitious solutions he proposed in this crisis moment.”
The political clout of progressives is debatable. After early setbacks, Biden took a commanding lead in the Democratic primary after voters rejected challengers from the left, including Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. And many progressives, including Sanders and Warren, say the threat of Trump’s election is enough to fully unify them behind Biden.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t rising tensions — and a convention leaning so heavily into Republican support for Biden is exacerbating them.
Ocasio-Cortez is seen by many as the future of the party, but may actually already be its present. The New York representative has already helped progressives win congressional primaries, including challenger Jamaal Bowman toppling longtime Rep. Eliot Engel in her home state’s primary.
“She is one of the people who can cut through this medium and deliver a message very powerfully, so I feel like the DNC just missed one on that,” former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang told Washington Post Live on Wednesday.
Waleed Shahid, spokesman for the progressive group Justice Democrats, described the convention so far as “boomer cringe,” and said Democrats aren’t effectively targeting young people and progressives who overwhelmingly didn’t support Biden in the primary.
California Rep. Ro Khanna, head of the California delegation to the convention, said people need to be inspired to vote.
“The way I think we can do that is we’ve got such great progressive stars,” Khanna said. “Let’s get them out there. Let’s get them engaged, let’s showcase them. … They can speak to that generation in very compelling ways.”
Airtime isn’t the only sticking point. The new Democratic platform approved at the convention does not call for an end to fossil fuel industry subsidies and tax breaks, nor does it make any mention of the sweeping “Green New Deal” proposals to combat climate change. That’s despite Biden’s campaign working for months with top Sanders advisers and supporters on “unity” task forces meant to incorporate some key progressive goals into the party platform.
The omission drew swift online condemnation from climate activists, but may have electoral benefits in battleground Pennsylvania, where the economy relies heavily on hydraulic fracturing.
Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa downplayed complaints about the convention being too Republican-heavy, telling Fox News Channel on Wednesday that her party would continue its message of “inclusion not exclusion.”
The Biden campaign, meanwhile, has long said it wants to attract as many supporters from across the political spectrum as possible. Sanders speaking on the same night as Kasich — who sought to reassure Republicans and independents who “fear Joe may turn sharp left and leave them behind” — illustrated just how big its political tent can be.
“As Senator Sanders said Monday night, this is the most important election in modern history, which is exactly why our campaign is building a broad coalition of supporters,” said Biden spokesman Michael Gwin.
Among those who have addressed the convention is Ady Barkin, a progressive activist who after being diagnosed with A.L.S. in 2016 has become a visible face of support for single-payer health care under plans like Sanders’ signature “Medicare for All.”
Still, Shahid said a lot of the Democrats getting airtime, including in Tuesday’s keynote montage with 17 “rising stars,” were those who supported Biden in the Democratic primary and “are being rewarded for their loyalty and their endorsement.”
That wasn’t the case, he said, for young progressive leaders such as Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who supported Warren’s presidential bid, and Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal or Khanna, who backed Sanders, and “are not really being given the light of day.”
Shahid also said disagreements over the convention are just a glimpse at what may happen if Biden wins in November and must work not only with Republicans but with a progressive caucus that is larger and more influential than it was when he left the vice presidency in 2016.
“A lot of what you’re seeing is like the beginning of the tension that will come to fore in a Biden administration between his White House and progressives in Congress who will not give him the honeymoon that Barack Obama got from them in 2009,” he said.