The Democratic National Convention kicks off Monday night, and Dems are really bringing the heat: A union-busting, vote-suppressing, anti-choice, former Lehman Brothers exec and Fox News host will headline the first night of festivities, with support from a former Republican governor who said ground zero air was “safe to breathe” after 9/11, an ex-GOP congresswoman-turned-Google VP, and billionaire entertainment executive currently overseeing the most spectacular launch failure in recent memory.
Former Ohio Gov. John Kasich has a prime-time convention slot on Monday, where he’ll follow former New York Rep. Susan Molinari, former Hewlett Packard chief (and present Quibi exec) Meg Whitman, and former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman. Michael Bloomberg, who was first elected mayor of New York City as a Republican before pursuing his own bid for the Democratic nomination earlier this year, is also scheduled to speak later this week.
It’s not unprecedented for parties to use convention speaking slots as a symbolic olive branch. In 2016, Bloomberg spoke in favor of Hillary Clinton. In 2008, former Democratic VP candidate Joe Lieberman spoke at the Republican National Convention for John McCain. And in 2004, Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia came out in support of George W. Bush. There is no evidence, though, that the strategy has ever paid significant dividends — and it risks alienating the energetic progressive base that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will need to turn out to defeat Trump in November.
Because of the limited number of slots, the short amount of time made available to speakers who made the cut, and the unpopular positions of many of the invited speakers, the dubious tradition is the subject of particularly sharp criticism this year. The fire is coming from all sides: grassroots activists, Democratic operatives, and even from Never Trump Republicans that speakers like Kasich are ostensibly designed to win over.
“It’s disappointing that in a year where Latino voters are poised to be the biggest non-white voting bloc [for the first time], the Democratic convention will feature more Republican speakers than Latinx speakers,” says Sawyer Hackett, a senior adviser to Julian Castro, who was not invited to speak. “There are more Republicans speaking on the first day of this convention than there are Latino speakers for the whole week.”
The party’s prime-time lineup for the week, as listed on the DNC site Monday, includes three Latinx speakers: Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto.
Hackett is especially disappointed by the DNC’s decision to tap Bloomberg for a coveted slot. “Amid this national reckoning over the issue of police violence and race, the billionaire architect of stop-and-frisk will be a featured speaker at this convention. That’s just incredibly tone-deaf to me,” he says.
The Rev. Dr. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, says he doesn’t object to the inclusion of Republicans in the convention, but to the former Ohio governor in particular. “Kasich has been a voter suppressionist,” Barber says. “He has pushed policies that hurt poor white people, poor black people, poor brown people, lower-income people, going all the way back to the failed welfare-reform legislation that scholar after scholar says devastated people in the poor community and castigated them and demonized them.”
“He said on CNN that he was assured that this ticket would not go too ‘far left,’ and for him, evidently, ‘far left’ is voting rights. ‘Far left’ is caring for the least-of-thee. ‘Far left’ is living wages. And I would argue those things are not far left, but moral center,” says Barber.
It’s a testament to how far to the right the Republican Party has tacked in recent years that Kasich — a former foot soldier in Newt Gingrich’s revolution, who ordered put a gag order on rape-crisis counselors as governor of Ohio — could be considered a reasonable moderate at this point. And while it’s easy to find Democrats who feel alienated by the fact that he’ll be speaking (according to a CBS poll, 62 percent of Democrats do not want to hear from Kasich, the lowest marks of any scheduled speaker), it’s clear who Kasich is supposed to be bringing in.
Over at the National Review, Dan McLaughlin, a Republican who voted for Evan McMullin in 2016, openly mocks the idea that Kasich is performing an act of political courage by throwing his support behind a candidate with a double-digit polling advantage. Kasich, McLaughlin argues, has less credibility than anyone with Never Trumpers like himself, since the former governor effectively paved Trump’s path to the GOP nomination in 2016 by simultaneously refusing to attack him on the debate stage while also refusing to bow out of the race. “No decision was so obviously self-interested and destructive of the anti-Trump effort than Kasich staying in the race throughout the primaries,” he writes.
The former Ohio governor is unfazed by the criticism. “At this point in time, my Republican affiliation is outweighed by my concern about the direction of the country,” Kasich, who polled higher with Democrats in Ohio than Republicans his last year in office, told BuzzFeed News about his decision to speak. “I don’t care if people agree or disagree with my speaking there. Whatever. We’ve got to settle things down. We’re not in two warring camps, Republicans and Democrats.” In the same interview, he went on criticize Ocasio-Cortez who will make her convention appearance later in the week.
“People on the extreme, whether they’re on the left or on the right, they get outsized publicity that tends to define their party. You know, I listen to people all the time make these statements, and because AOC gets outsized publicity doesn’t mean she represents the Democratic Party. She’s just a part, just some member of it,” Kasich said. (Roughly the same proportion of Democrats are looking forward to seeing Ocasio-Cortez speak, according to the CBS poll, as are not looking forward to seeing Kasich.)
Ocasio-Cortez, in response, extended an olive brach of her own on Twitter, along with a note of skepticism. “It’s great that Kasich has woken up and realized the importance of supporting a Biden-Harris ticket. I hope he gets through to GOP voters. Yet also, something tells me a Republican who fights against women’s rights doesn’t get to say who is or isn’t representative of the Dem party.”