The first night of the 2020 Democratic National Convention was about highlighting ordinary Americans, and the second night was about putting the spotlight on its leaders — the figures who dominated the party in decades prior and those who hope to take the reins in the decades ahead. It cast Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the people at the center who can serve as the bond — though other people did most of the talking, including, perhaps most notably, former second lady Jill Biden. She wove her family’s story into America’s story.
“Love makes us flexible and resilient,” she said as she closed out the night. “It allows us to become more than ourselves together, and though it can’t protect us from the sorrows of life, it gives us refuge, a home. How do you make a broken family whole? The same way you make a nation whole. With love and understanding, and with small acts of kindness. With bravery, with unwavering faith. You show up for each other in big ways and small ones again and again.”
The evening was a mashup of the ghosts of Democrats past, present, and future — Bill Clinton and John Kerry, Sally Yates and Ady Barkan, and Stacey Abrams and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Ghosts of the Republican Party — Colin Powell and Cindy McCain — were there, too. The opening montages were clips of memorable keynote speeches of previous conventions, including Barack Obama in 2004 and Ann Richards in 1988, followed by this year’s version of a keynote address featuring 17 up-and-coming Democratic politicians from across the country.
“True leaders make sure that policy is informed by all of us, bridging our burdened past to a safe, equitable, and even joyful future. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are that bridge,” said actress Tracee Ellis Ross, who acted as the emcee for the night.
Former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, delivered remarks over a video montage. Former President Bill Clinton, a somewhat controversial speaker in the Me Too era, took swipes at President Trump but also put a focus on the economy — unsurprising given a tagline of his 1992 campaign was, “It’s the economy, stupid.” He noted that the United States has a higher unemployment rate than South Korea, the United Kingdom, and Japan in the era of Covid-19. “Donald Trump says we’re leading the world. Well, we are the only major industrial economy to have its unemployment rate triple,” he said.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who was given just 60 seconds to speak, offered a more modern — and progressive — diagnosis of the economy while speaking about Sen. Bernie Sanders. His movement, she said, “realizes the unsustainable brutality of an economy that rewards explosive inequalities of wealth for the few at the expense of long-term stability for the many.”
She seconded Sanders’s nomination during the convention, a matter of procedure because he passed the delegate threshold. (She is backing Biden for the White House.)
Tuesday also followed on Monday’s theme of including everyday Americans and lesser-known figures in much of the night’s content. The roll call of states to officially make the nomination was an opportunity for each delegation to showcase itself that was sometimes deeply moving and sometimes fun. A subsequent section on health care put the stakes of the political battle over the issue in striking human terms: messages from cancer patients, and a message from health care activist Ady Barkan, who has ALS.
One particular showstopper: Jacquelyn Brittany, as identified by the Washington Post, a New York security guard who nominated Biden for the White House. “Joe Biden has room in his heart for more than just himself. We’ve been through a lot, and we have tough days ahead, but nominating someone like that to be in the White House is a good place to start,” she said.
Biden himself appeared on and off throughout the evening and made a final appearance at the close of his wife’s speech on Tuesday, which she delivered from an empty classroom. (She is a teacher.) He joked that he is “Jill Biden’s husband” — a jest he’s made in the past — and hugged her, telling her, “God, I love you,” as he kissed her on the head.
We’re at the midpoint of the 2020 Democratic National Convention. Here are the winners and losers of the night.
Winner: The state roll call
At its worst, an all-remote convention can feel flat and disconnected — Giovanni Russonello of the New York Times compared the first night to a concert without a crowd. But it also offers unusual opportunities, and those were on perfect display in Tuesday night’s roll call vote.
In an ordinary convention, delegates from all US states and territories gather physically on the convention floor to cast their official votes for presidential nominees. It’s an often hours-long process that’s not as meaningful to the television-watchers as it is to partying convention-goers. Since that wasn’t possible this year, the delegates made videos. And likely due to safety concerns around bringing multiple people together indoors in a time of Covid-19, many chose to set their statements outdoors. They were ... amazing.
From Hawaii civil rights activist Amy Agbayani, backed by a beautiful beach, to Michigan delegates in front of cars to the Nevada delegation against a backdrop of Vegas neon, each delegation took us to their homes — at a time when many Americans are stuck in theirs. For convention viewers sitting on their couches uncertain when travel will be safe again, it was a breath of fresh air to see the mountains of New Mexico as state Rep. Derrick Lente spoke of 23 Indigenous nations and other residents “united by the love of the beautiful place we call home.”
And the format allowed states and territories to show all Americans their history, like Alabama Rep. Terri Sewell’s speech from the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, or the Oklahoma delegation’s capsule history of the Tulsa race massacre; their connection to presumptive nominee Joe Biden, like Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey’s speech in front of the former VP’s old house in Scranton; and sometimes their quirkier side, like Rhode Island’s state appetizer, calamari.
A number of the speeches were somber in tone, referencing the sacrifices of essential workers, the dangers of climate change, and the country’s history of racist violence. But taken together, the tour of America provided by this unusual roll call vote offered something unexpected in this pandemic-era convention: joy.
Winner: Ady Barkan
The ALS activist, a prominent advocate for single-payer health care, was the star of a primetime segment devoted to health care. He made the case for universal coverage in the middle of a calamitous disease outbreak.
Barkan appeared at his home, speaking through a machine because the disease has left him unable to use his natural voice. He looked directly into the camera. He portrayed American health care as a crisis, one that felt particularly acute in the pandemic.
“I’m speaking to you through this computer voice because I have been paralyzed by a mysterious illness. Like so many of you, I have experienced the ways our health care system is broken,” Barkan said. “Since my shocking diagnosis, I have traveled the country meeting countless patients like me. Demanding more of the representatives and democracy. Today, we are witnessing the tragic consequences of the failing health care system.”
Barkan has been a fixture of recent key moments in the country’s health care debate. He was arrested at the US Capitol when Republicans were debating their tax bill, saying the plan would make his life worse. He appeared at the first congressional hearing on Medicare-for-all, which Barkan ardently supports, a few months later.
This isn’t news, but Joe Biden does not support Medicare-for-all. By his campaign’s acknowledgment, several million people would be left uninsured by his health care plan.
But like Bernie Sanders the night before, Barkan made the contrast between Biden, proposing a public option and expanded coverage, and Trump, currently party to a lawsuit that would overturn Obamacare in its entirety.
“With the threat of another four years of this president, we all have a profound obligation to act,” Barkan said. “Not only to vote but to make sure that our friends, family, and neighbors vote as well. We must elect Joe Biden.”
Democrats want to run on health care; midway through the second hour of the convention’s second night, actor Jeff Bridges narrated an extended video on Biden’s commitment to health care. The nominee himself spoke via video call with several patients about their medical experiences.
Barkan punctuated the health care package, a portrait of the issue’s importance.
Winner: The Carters
Rosalynn Carter, former first lady of the United States, and former President Jimmy Carter addressed the convention via voiceover as images of their public life flashed by.
Rosalynn spoke to Biden’s commitment to caregivers. Jimmy, now 95, was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2015. After receiving treatment, he announced that his medical scans showed no signs of cancer. He then fell and broke his hip last year.
“We’ve known and admired Joe for many years. Most recently I worked with him tackling the demands faced by the 53 million unpaid caregivers in our country who are juggling work and other responsibilities,” Rosalynn said. “Putting their own physical health and well-being at risk. Joe knows well, too well, the sorrows and struggles of being a family caregiver.”
Jimmy Carter also spoke briefly to his long personal friendship with Biden. He said the former vice president would bring “dignity” to the office.
“You deserve a person with integrity and judgment. Someone who’s 100 percent fair, someone who’s committed to what is best for the American people,” Jimmy, a fixture at Democratic conventions in his long post-presidency, said. “Joe is that kind of leader.”
Loser: Bill Clinton
It wasn’t too long ago that a Bill Clinton speech at a Democratic National Convention was an event.
In 2012, his 50-minute stemwinder making the case for Barack Obama’s reelection received rave reviews. He managed to keep it to 41 minutes when making the case for Hillary in 2016. Clinton entertained, played off the crowd, peppered his addresses with policy specifics, and departed liberally from the prepared text.
But Bill Clinton’s place in the Democratic Party of 2020 has grown much more tenuous in the age of Me Too and increasing questioning of his and Hillary’s legacies — and that was reflected at the convention Tuesday night.
The former president received just five minutes to give a prerecorded address that aired in the first hour of programming, before primetime network coverage began, meaning he was speaking to a more limited audience. He criticized Trump’s handling of the presidency, and then praised Biden for the Obama administration’s record. It was a workmanlike effort that few will remember, and paled in comparison to his speeches of the past.
Winner: Jacquelyn, the New York Times security guard
In January, Jacquelyn Brittany, a security guard with the New York Times, went viral after meeting Joe Biden in an elevator at the newspaper’s building in midtown Manhattan.
“I love you,” she blurted out. “I do, you’re like my favorite.”
Honored to have won Jacquelyn's endorsement. pic.twitter.com/tGpNZjXacu— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) January 20, 2020
Seven months later, the 31-year-old New Yorker found herself in quite a different position: nominating Biden for president of the United States. The Washington Post had previewed the development earlier in the day on Tuesday. Like Kristin Urquiza, the woman who on Monday delivered a scathing indictment of Trump’s handling of the pandemic, Jacquelyn’s appearance was a moving and profoundly human change of pace as she described her day-to-day and how the vice president made it different.
“I take powerful people up on my elevator all the time. When they get off, they go to their important meetings. Me? I just go back to the lobby,” she began. “But in the short time I spent with Joe Biden, I could tell he really saw me, that he actually cared, that my life meant something to him. And I knew even when he went into his important meeting, he’d take my story in there with him.
“That’s because Joe Biden has room in his heart for more than just himself. We’ve been through a lot, and we have tough days ahead, but nominating someone like that to be in the White House is a good place to start,” she said. “That’s why I nominate my friend Joe Biden as the next president of the United States.”
The convention has taken the opportunity afforded by an all-virtual convention to draw in ordinary Americans and make them part of the event. At times, it’s felt a little over-packed, and maybe (okay, definitely) I’m a sap, but it’s a welcome change of pace. We’ve spent months with political leaders and corporate America telling us we’re all in this together; it’s nice to see what “all in this together” actually looks like. It’s not standing behind a lectern or in a boardroom; it’s standing next to someone in the elevator.
Winner: State legislators and local leaders
The spotlight for Tuesday’s DNC keynote address wasn’t taken up by one big Democratic name. Instead, it was shared by many smaller ones.
State legislators, mayors, and city councilors from around the country including Pennsylvania state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta; Nevada state Sen. Yvanna Cancela; Birmingham, Alabama, Mayor Randall Woodfin; and Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez spoke from their living rooms and backyards, all over the country.
They were joined by US Reps. Conor Lamb and Brendan Boyle of Pennsylvania, and Colin Allred of Texas, as well former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, herself a rising star in the Democratic Party.
Democrats were intent on showing a young and diverse bench of politicians from all over the country. Highlighting the party’s youth and diversity is especially crucial during a year when Democrats are nominating Joe Biden — who, if elected, would be the oldest sitting president at age 78.
In a normal convention year, a few of these local and state leaders may have gotten some airtime with a short speaking slot earlier in the afternoon. But the all-virtual format of the 2020 convention enabled a slew of lesser-known officials to share in the spotlight. Even though many took the opportunity to share why they were supporting Biden for president, they also talked about their accomplishments at the local level.
“In Nevada, we’re making drug prices more transparent, so people with chronic illnesses won’t go broke while drug companies get rich,” Cancela said.
“In Texas ... we’re fighting to make sure that mothers have access to health screenings for safe pregnancies and childbirth. And we’re bringing long-overdue justice to survivors of sexual assault,” said state Rep. Victoria Neave.
“In Florida, we’re working to produce more renewable energy and shrink our carbon footprint,” added the state’s agriculture commissioner, Nikki Fried.
The 17-speaker keynote was a boost for the local lawmakers and city leaders but also served to emphasize that the Democrats’ party-building is alive and well.
Loser: The traditional convention format
It turns out having to rethink things that have been done the same way for decades is good. Case in point: political conventions.
At times, watching Tuesday’s convention made you wonder why things hadn’t been done this way all along, or at least why there hasn’t been more of a move to shake up the format. Instead of long, high-rhetoric speeches, the audience got to see tight, well-produced segments and addresses and a host to frame the night.
Convention by video chat allows for a lot more people to participate — and for preparation ahead of time. Sure, delegates, party members, elites, and the press miss a chance to hobnob, but is that really lacking? Some off-the-cuff opportunities were surely lost. But somehow, even though the convention was not in person, it in many ways felt more personal than ever. Instead of seeing Jill Biden at a lectern, we saw her in a classroom. Plus, who doesn’t mind a televised political event that ends on time?
This isn’t to say that when the pandemic ends, in-person conventions shouldn’t make a comeback. At the very least, people will likely appreciate the ability to finally be together.
But the virtual convention was a reminder that having to think on one’s feet and reimagine what something should look like can have good results.
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