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Strategists Allison, Begala Weigh In On Democratic National Convention


Political conventions are not what they were, especially in this pandemic year. But the speeches on national television are still a big deal. Joe Biden addresses the Democratic convention and the country tonight. His running mate, Kamala Harris, spoke last night, so did former President Obama and other Democratic stars. We called up some voters at the end of the night and asked what they thought.

STACEY PAGISE: Senator Kamala Harris, Barack Obama just reminding us four years ago when Donald Trump asked us, what do we get to lose? And you see now we lost a whole lot.

SHIRLEY HAMMOND: I would have liked to have seen more passion. We need to convince people of the urgency of what's at stake.

INSKEEP: Stacey Pagise (ph) of Plainfield, Ill., and Shirley Hammond (ph) of Marietta, Ga., both are supporting Biden. We can presume that a lot of Democrats have been watching this week, surely some Republicans as well. Let's get perspective with Aimee Allison, the founder of the political organization She the People, which works to elect women of color. Welcome to the program.

AIMEE ALLISON: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: We also have CNN contributor Paul Begala, who served as an adviser to former President Bill Clinton. Good morning to you.

PAUL BEGALA: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Oh, let's play a little bit of last night's proceedings. President Obama - former President Obama - came on screen. Former presidents try to be a little circumspect about their successors, but President Obama did not hold back on this occasion. Let's listen.


BARACK OBAMA: For close to four years now, he has shown no interest in putting in the work, no interest in finding common ground, no interest in using the awesome power of his office to help anyone but himself and his friends.

INSKEEP: Paul Begala, were you surprised that the former president was that direct?

BEGALA: Astonished. First, it's not his brand. He generally tries to be above partisanship. And there was nothing nonpartisan about that speech. Second, parties use their former presidents to validate their new nominees. And this time, they used Obama to eviscerate. I thought that that was an enormous favor for Joe Biden because now Kamala last night - Senator Harris - and tonight Joe Biden can be more positive. When you wheel out your biggest gun to take down the incumbent president, it frees Biden to be a lot more positive tonight.

INSKEEP: Oh, that's interesting. And also, normally the vice presidential nominee would be the attack dog, to use an old metaphor. In this case, Kamala Harris was freed from some of that role and could introduce herself a little more to the country.

BEGALA: Very helpful, you know. I remember when Sarah Palin was introduced. She gave a great speech and mostly negative, though, just really tore apart the Democrats. Kamala didn't have to do that, either. This was - I thought President Obama's speech was almost more of a 911 call than a speech, though. It wasn't just doing political business. I really think he believes that our democracy itself is in danger, or he wouldn't be putting all of his legacy on the line this way.

INSKEEP: Well, let's hear some of what Senator Harris had to say. She told her story. She spoke of how she learned politics and also protesting from her immigrant parents.


KAMALA HARRIS: That I am here tonight is a testament to the dedication of generations before me, women and men who believed so fiercely in the promise of equality, liberty and justice for all.

INSKEEP: Aimee Allison, did Senator Harris do that job of introducing herself to that part of the country that didn't know her?

ALLISON: She really did. So many people could see themselves in her life story, not only her story of being the child of immigrants and what that meant to her, being the child - you know, Generation X, being the child of civil rights activists and being in the Black tradition. She evoked Black women who had been fighting for generations for democracy. And in that way, she brought a complex and really powerful racial identities to bear and demonstrated why it was those reasons and those experiences that she is uniquely and powerfully positioned to lead and unite a multiracial coalition.

When she introduced herself - those of us who live in Oakland, live in California were more familiar with her. But I think tonight or last night was a night where the country realized that her on the ticket was going to be not only a game changer for us personally for women of color personally, but for Democrats nationally. They can also see themselves now and be reminded of how the sentiment and the spirit that goes behind a highly enthusiastic electorate going to the polls, she captured that.

INSKEEP: A couple of things. First, you said Generation X, and you made me realize, as someone of that generation, there's finally somebody of that generation on a national ticket. I'm not sure it's ever happened before. So thank you for pointing that out. But...

ALLISON: It feels nice (laughter).

INSKEEP: Yeah, it does feel nice. More significantly, though, I think, how is Harris handling the intricacies of race, as someone who identifies as Black but also has South Asian ancestry, as someone who says she's progressive but also has a background that was sometimes criticized as a prosecutor?

ALLISON: One of her greatest strengths is to be able to navigate complex racial politics. Look. It wasn't an - you know, two years ago, when I founded She the People to create political space to elevate the voice and power of women of color, we made an assertion, which is that the Democrats cannot win and build a multiracial transformative democracy without women of color at the center. And that because our country was becoming a diverse place, certainly in California but in swing states like Texas, Georgia, Florida and Arizona, the majority of people are people of color. You've got to have someone who can speak to the experiences of different people and speak language of solidarity. Senator Kamala Harris demonstrated that. And that's a qualification for leadership now in the Democratic Party.

INSKEEP: Paul Begala, let's bring you back into this conversation. I believe Paul Begala is still with us.

BEGALA: Yes, sir.

INSKEEP: How successful have Democrats been this week at saying what they would do if returned to power?

BEGALA: I think they've been pretty successful. I think Senator Harris did the best job of that. As I said, other speakers - Hillary, President Clinton, President Obama - did a really good job of taking down Mr. Trump. But Senator Harris - and then tonight I expect Joe Biden - to make that affirmative case. What will you do? And not just what you do, what will you do for me? I think that Democrats last time around took their eye off the ball and talked too much about Donald Trump and too little about the voters. And I know that Senator Harris did a great job of that last night. And I think Joe Biden will tonight.

INSKEEP: Aimee Allison, do you think that Democrats are making specific appeals to people of color who sometimes feel, African Americans especially, they're taken advantage of at election time?

ALLISON: Oh, yeah, I mean, look. In 2016, it would be hard to imagine a convention night that was so centered on Black women and other women of color. And that's what we saw last night. That's what we've seen for the three nights, making the case directly to Black women who are the strongest Democrats and the margin of victory, women of color the margin of victory. And speaking out the names of different groups - Asian American, Latino, Indigenous and Black women - invoking a common legacy, powerful stuff. And...

INSKEEP: Got to stop you there. Aimee Allison, thanks so much. She's founder and president of She the People. And Paul Begala, thanks to you as well.

BEGALA: Thanks, Steve.

ALLISON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Paul was on Skype. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.