Democratic National Convention, Night 2: Rising Stars and the Old Guard

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Promotional graphic for the second night of the Democratic National Convention, featuring a mix of rising stars within the party and the old guard. While the official nomination of Joe Biden featured an opportunity to show off the party’s sociopolitical and generational diversity, it also revealed a part less comfortable with its ideological identity and an ensuing pivot into Biden’s personal characteristics of moral decency. Graphic credits: Joe’s Soul Squad.

The second night of the Democratic National Convention officially nominated Joe Biden to the Democratic ticket for President of the United States. No longer is Joe Biden the “presumptive” nominee, but the official standard-bearer of the Democratic Party to challenge incumbent President Donald Trump, the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party at the Republican National Convention slated for next week. This marks the culmination of a months-long, gruelling primary campaign process that saw a deep rift between the progressive and moderate wings of the party; nonetheless, a major theme throughout the second night of the convention in particular was party unity in the face of ousting President Trump.

In an effective display of that unity in diversity, the second night of the convention featured numerous rising stars in the party trading off with representatives of the old guard, emphasizing the dichotomy of the party. Biden, the oldest presidential nominee in history at age 78, has made generational change a major piece of his campaigning, with an implicit pledge to “pass the torch” to younger politicians. This was most apparent in his vice-presidential pick of Kamala Harris, age 55, which added generational, geographic, gender, and racial balance to the ticket; Harris is expected to be nominated on Wednesday, and has injected a surge of energy to the Democratic Party, with $48 million dollars raised within the first 48 hours of the VP pick announcement. 

Nonetheless, the second night of the convention was the source of considerable controversy because of a perceived lack of ideological diversity. While the speeches did feature prominent progressive surrogates, such as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), many felt as though the DNC did not accord her enough time to speak, since her remarks lasted less than two minutes and served only as a seconding nomination for Biden’s chief primary rival, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT). This was especially the case given the lengthy speeches of prominent centrist politicians as well as Republican John Kasich on Monday night; this general ideological discontent is certain to remain a major swirling question in the months ahead, and even well past the election.

Rising Stars Take Center Stage 

The Democratic National Convention opted for a non-traditional keynote speech; while usually one prominent speaker will deliver the address, the DNC opted for seventeen rising stars in the Democratic Party to deliver the keynote address together. While an interesting gimmick and an effective display of the party’s diversity, the effect could be jarring at times, as the various speakers attempted to speak in unison or try to cram as much personal touch in as possible during a short 10-second clip. 

Seventeen rising stars in the Democratic Party partnered together to deliver the keynote address, which resulted in a jarring effect at times but overall was a testament to the party’s racial and geographic, if not ideological, diversity. Photo credits: NBC news.

The seventeen speakers, in no particular order, were Minority Leader of the Georgia House of Representatives Stacey Abrams; Tennessee State Senator Raumesh Akbari; Representative Colin Allred of Texas; Representative Brendan Boyle of Pennsylvania; Nevada State Senator Yvanna Cancela; former Ohio State Representative Kathleen Clyde; Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried; Mayor of Long Beach, California, Robert Garcia; Pennsylvania State Representative Malcolm Kenyatta; South Carolina State Senator Marlon Kimpson; Representative Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania; Michigan State Representative Mari Manoogian; Texas State Representative Victoria Neave; President of the Navajo Nation Jonathan Nez; Georgia State Representative Sam Park; New Hampshire State Representative Denny Ruprecht; and the Mayor of Birmingham, Alabama Randall Woodfin.

Many of these rising stars were largely unknown prior to the keynote address. However, two of the speakers in particular have been identified as prominent politicians with bright futures: Representative Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania and Minority Leader of the Georgia House of Representatives Stacey Abrams. Lamb made headlines in 2018 when he won a special election in a heavily Republican House district, and has since been heralded as a future leader of the centrist wing of the Democratic Party. In his DNC speech, he made a full-throated endorsement of Biden, invoking one of the main messages of the Biden campaign: “we are in a battle for the soul of our nation”. 

Abrams, on the other hand, lost her 2018 bid for Governor of Georgia in a tightly contested race, but has likewise been identified as a rising star. Rumored for months to be on Biden’s VP shortlist, she ultimately lost out to Harris due to her relative youth and inexperience, but she nonetheless remains an ardent supporter of Biden. In the closing minutes of the keynote address, Abrams asserted, ““In a democracy, we do not elect saviors. We cast our ballots for those who see our struggle and pledge to serve.” She continued: “so our choice is clear, a steady experienced public servant” or “a man who only knows how to deny and distract.”

These seventeen speakers represented the party’s general geographic and racial diversity, with speakers from across the country discussing their unique backgrounds. The speakers represented every racial group in the country: Native Americans, Asian Americans, White Americans, and Black Americans, in addition to many Hispanic Americans, representing the country’s largest ethnic minority. For the first time, the keynote address also had LGBT speakers, namely Kenyatta and Park, representing the seismic shift in public opinion regarding LGBT rights in the past decades. Nonetheless, it was noted that none of these speakers had endorsed Senator Sanders in the 2020 primary; again, the perceived shying away from ideological balance was the source of complaints from the party’s progressive wing, who had hoped for one of their own young rising stars to be included in the mix.

The Old Guard Retrenches

Following the keynote address, the DNC featured several members of the Democratic establishment, many of whom have been in politics for decades. The contrast with the keynote speakers’ youth and energy was doubtless deliberate, meant to emphasize the Biden campaign’s focus on generational change. However, once again, the relative lack in ideological diversity was a source of criticism, with nearly all of the Old Guard speakers being identified with the party’s centrist, moderate wing.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) appealed not only to the mission to unseat Trump but also take back the Senate from Republicans. In one of the rare allusions to ideological diversity, Schumer emphasized how senators from “Sanders and Warren to Manchin and Warner” would work together. Photo credits: National Review.

As an interlude from the keynote address, former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates made a brief address. Yates became a Democratic hero in early 2017 when she defied Trump’s Muslim travel ban and was subsequently fired from her job, and has long been courted to run for elected office in her native Georgia. In her convention speech, Yates stressed the importance of listening to public servants, who “didn’t swear an oath to a person or a party, but to defend the constitution, uphold laws, and work on behalf of American people.” She emphasized how Trump “treats our country like it’s his family business…Our country doesn’t belong to him, it belongs to all of us”.

She was followed by a speech from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who has led the fight in the Republican-dominated Senate for almost three years. Standing from his New York home balcony, with the Statue of Liberty visible but blurry in the background, Schumer stressed the importance of defeating Trump. Following on Michelle Obama’s remarks from Night 1 that Trump’s attitude of “It is what it is” was inappropriate given the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic, Schumer pointed out how, “President Lincoln, honoring the great sacrifice at Gettysburg didn’t say ‘it is what it is’. President Roosevelt seeing a third of the nation ill-housed ill-clad and ill-nourished didn’t say ‘it it’s what it is.’ America, Donald Trump has quit on you. ”

Schumer then continued to discuss ousting Trump, but also discussed his personal area of expertise, reclaiming the Senate from the Republicans. Schumer emphasized that “if we’re going to win this battle for the soul of our nation, Joe can’t do it alone. Democrats must take back the Senate. We will stay united, from Sanders and Warren to Manchin and Warner—and together, we will bring bold and dramatic change to our country.” This oblique reference to ideological unity by invoking both the Senate’s most progressive and most centrist figures was the first of the evening, and reflects the necessity of the Senate Minority Leader to corral a diverse group together to achieve common interests.

In another bridge between the party’s past and future, two members of the famous Kennedy dynasty appeared to give a spirited endorsement of Biden: Caroline Kennedy (left), daughter to President John F. Kennedy, and her son Jack Schlossberg (right). Photo credits: IrishCentral

Following Schumer’s address, Caroline Kennedy, daughter of former President Kennedy, and her son Jack Schlossberg gave a brief speech once more emphasizing the theme of generational change. While Caroline has been a prominent figure in political circles for years, having served as ambassador to Japan under the Obama administration, Schlossberg—the only grandson of Kennedy—has largely stayed aloof from politics, with the convention speech representing his first major political appearance. He focused in particular on issues facing young voters, saying that “For our generation, it will define the rest of our lives”, invoking topics including climate change, systemic racism, and healthcare that would be priorities under a Biden administration.

To round out the first half of the convention, two past Democratic presidents gave remarks on the importance of electing Biden. The oldest living former president, 95-year-old Jimmy Carter, appeared in a voiceover alongside his wife Rosalynn Carter to give an emphatic endorsement to Biden, saying “for decades he has been my dedicated and loyal friend”. Biden had been one of the early endorsers for Carter in his 1976 bid for president, and Carter has now repaid that debt of gratitude describing Biden as “the right person for this moment in our nation’s history”. In many ways, Biden’s personal brand is very similar to Carter’s, focusing on a distinct personal decency in the highly negative environment of Washington politics.

The other former President to give remarks on Night 2 was Bill Clinton. Long famed for his rambling remarks and tendency to hog the microphone at conventions, the recorded nature of this year’s virtual convention limited Clinton to uncharacteristic brevity. Describing the presidential election as “the world’s most important job interview”, Clinton roundly criticized Trump for his response to the pandemic, from claiming the virus would disappear to bragging on TV about doing a great job, and particularly for ignoring the expert advice from scientists such as mask-wearing. In a calculated jab at Trump’s reality-TV style presidency, Clinton pointedly commented, “Denying, distracting, and demeaning works great if you’re trying to entertain and inflame. But in a real crisis, it collapses like a house of cards.”

Former President Bill Clinton gave an uncharacteristically brief speech at the DNC, illustrating how the Clinton brand of Third Way politicians has slowly fallen by the wayside in recent years. Photo credits: AP News.

For many young progressives, Clinton now represents an artifact of the past, especially in the wake of the #MeToo era and the obsolete nature of his soft-spoken, Third Way style of cooperation with Republicans. In many ways he is the ultimate party elder. However, Clinton is two months younger than Trump, and four years younger than Biden; while the prospect of campaigning against another septuagenarian has blunted some of the age-related criticism of Biden, the fact remains that either candidate would be the oldest president in American history. 

Virtual Roll Call: A New Tradition?

The bulk of the convention was taken up by the official nomination process for Biden; while his majority in the primaries had been more or less secured months ago, this represents the formal moment when Biden was officially selected by the Democratic Party to be its nominee. Nonetheless, because Biden’s primary opponent Senator Bernie Sanders had also secured a sizable portion of the votes, as part of the official procedure, Sanders was also given a share of the delegates which he then officially swung to Biden.

One of the most highly anticipated moments in the convention was Sanders’s official nomination, which was given by Bob King, former president of the United Auto Workers, as well as freshman representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). King praised Sanders for having “led the fight for workers” and his desire to “confront large corporations with far too much control over politics”; a longtime union leader, King had been a prominent endorser of Sanders early in the 2020 primary, and now at the close of the Sanders campaign, he officially endorsed Sanders for the nomination as part of the traditional political pageantry.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez then delivered her seconding speech, which was widely praised despite its brief length—Ocasio-Cortez had been given less than two minutes for her speech, a frequent cause for complaint from her progressive followers, especially in light of the much longer speaking times given to centrists and conservatives. Nonetheless, the fact that she had a speech at all was a testament to her influence and power; to secure a speaking spot at a political convention less than two years after first coming to office is no easy feat. 

Freshman Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) officially submitted Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) for nomination of the DNC presidential ticket, a symbolic tradition where the runner-up is accorded his or her share of the delegates in a show of party unity. AOC’s speech characterized Sanders’s grassroots campaign as a movement not limited to one person, but to generations, once more hearkening back to the night’s theme. Photo Credits: The New York Times.

Ocasio-Cortez fixated her speech on the common themes of Sanders’s campaign, “endeavoring towards a better, more just future for our country and our world”; in particular, she drew attention for referencing the movement’s goal “to recognize and repair the wounds of racial injustice, colonization, misogyny, and homophobia”. Comparatively tame by the standards of her previous firebrand speeches, the seconding speech nonetheless reflected the strength and conviction of the party’s progressive wing, and how it was not attached solely to Sanders but to an entire grassroots movement.

In counterpoint to the Sanders nomination was Biden’s delegation, both of which were politicians from his home state of Delaware. Following a viral video of a New York Times security guard, Jacqueline Brittany, endorsing Biden, Biden’s longtime friend Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) officially submitted Biden’s name for the nomination. Describing Delaware as a “a small state where people expect to see their senators and even sometimes their vice president”, Coons stressed Biden’s history of standing up for ordinary voters from gun violence to climate change. Coons was seconded by Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-DE), who stressed the historic nature of the moment: “In some history class in the future, children are learning about this moment. They’re learning about our pain, our grief, our worry. But they’re also learning…about a night that we all came together, despite our distance, to nominate Joe Biden as our next President of the United States.” 

One aspect of the virtual convention was particularly praised online for its fresh new look: the nomination roll call, which featured each of the states and territories casting the official votes for Biden. While traditionally the roll call has been a chaotic mess of politicians waving their banners in the midst of the rowdy and crowded nomination hall, the virtual format enabled each state and territory to show off its distinct flavor, such as their accents, state nicknames, and regional outfits. Particularly interesting and distinct nominations came from American Samoa, New Mexico, North Dakota, and the Northern Marianas Islands, each of which prominently featured indigenous peoples in a display of state pride.

The new virtual convention featured a different version of the traditional roll call, where each state officially submits its delegates to the nominees; each state relished the chance to show off its own distinct culture, with different backgrounds, accents, outfits, and nicknames. Photo credit: Slate.

New Jersey’s nomination was submitted by Governor Phil Murphy, whose remarks were as follows: “We’ve been hit hard by COVID, but we’re coming back. But we have to be smart. We have to listen to the experts, and we have to have a president with a plan. That’s why in memory of all those we’ve lost, in solidarity with those who were sick or struggling, and in eternal gratitude for our heroic frontline workers, New Jersey casts 5 votes for Senator Bernie Sanders and 139 votes for the next President of the United States, Joe Biden.” While perhaps less distinct than some of the vibrant nominations from other territories, Murphy’s remarks nonetheless show a state determined to endure the crisis and emerge stronger.

The roll call was also a way for rising politicians to make their mark; several of the states featured Biden’s former 2020 rivals in the nomination, such as Pete Buttigieg for Indiana, Amy Klobuchar for Minnesota, Tim Ryan for Ohio, and Bernie Sanders for Vermont. Other notable nominations came from Virginia, featuring Khizr Khan, the veteran father who made headlines in 2016 for offering Trump his copy of a pocket constitution, as well as Wyoming, which came from the parents of Matthew Shepard, a gay student whose infamous 1998 murder became a rallying cry for LGBT activists nationwide.

At the very end of the nomination, Delaware, which had “passed” in the official alphabetical order, threw its support to Biden, clinching the nomination. With 3,558 delegates to Sanders’s 1,151 and 40 abstain ballots, Biden officially became the Democratic nominee for President of the United States. In a parody of the traditional balloon drop, Biden’s grandchildren surprised the new nominee with an impromptu balloon drop of their own, showering their grandfather with a spray of confetti and balloons. 

Wrapping Up the Night

As part of the final touches for Night 2 of the convention, several final speeches were made, with a distinctly more somber touch. First came the healthcare activist Ady Barkan, who was diagnosed with the deadly debilitating disease ALS in 2016 shortly after the birth of his son; Barkan gained a huge national following as he campaigned for universal healthcare in the wake of Trump’s tax bill which threatened to cut his insurance. Speaking through a computer voice because of the paralysis from his disease, Barkan asserted that “Everyone living in America should get the healthcare they need, regardless of their employment status or ability to pay… We must elect Joe Biden. Each of us must be a hero for our communities, for our country.”

Speaking through a computer because of the paralysis from his ALS, dying activist Ady Barkan stressed the importance of universal healthcare and urged progressives to vote for Biden in light of Trump’s threatened tax cuts, in another rare allusion to the party’s ideological differences. Photo credits: Common Dreams.

The topic then shifted to a pair of former Secretaries of State, focusing on Trump’s foreign policy mistakes. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee and Secretary of State under Obama, began by praising the Obama/Biden administration’s foreign policy achievements, from the Iranian nuclear deal, a coalition of nations to defeat ISIS, and the Paris Climate Accord of 195 nations. He then hurled a stinging jab at the President: “Donald Trump inherited a growing economy and a more peaceful world. And like everything else he inherited, he bankrupted it.”

Kerry continued by criticizing Trump for cozying up to dictators, saying “When this president goes overseas, it isn’t a goodwill mission, it’s a blooper reel. He breaks up with our allies and writes love letters to dictators. America deserves a president who is looked up to, not laughed at.” He sternly criticized Trump for his inaction on Russian election interference and placing a bounty on American troops in Afghanistan, before stressing the differences between Trump and Biden’s views on American exceptionalism—while Trump “made our nation more isolated than ever before”, Biden knows that “we are exceptional because we do exceptional things”.

Kerry’s criticism was corroborated by Bush’s former Secretary of State, Colin Powell. A longtime Republican who nonetheless endorsed both Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008 and 2016 respectively, Powell emphasized that “Our country needs a commander in chief who takes care of our troops in the same way he would his own family.” He continued off of Kerry and Yates’s criticism by asserting “He will trust our diplomats and our intelligence community, not the flattery of dictators and despots.” This speech marked Powell’s first appearance at a national convention since 2000, and his first-ever at a Democratic convention.

Former Republican Secretary of State Colin Powell made a full-throated endorsement of Joe Biden, criticizing Trump for a foreign policy overreliant on the “flattery of dictators and despots”. Powell marks the latest in a string of high-profile Republican defections in support of Biden. Photo credits: CNN.

Powell wasn’t the only high-profile Republican defector at Night 2 of the Democratic National Convention; joining him as well as the four Republicans from Night 1, Cindy McCain, wife to the late Senator John McCain (R-AZ), appeared in a recorded video strenuously endorsing Biden and all but implying that her husband would have as well. Biden and McCain, she asserted, had been close friends ever since McCain served as a Navy Senate liaison to Biden, “[carrying] his bags on overseas trips”. (Biden is then heard interjecting with his trademark folksy humor, saying “This son of a gun never carried my bags. He was supposed to carry my bags dammit, but he never carried my bags.”) McCain continued by describing how her husband eventually became a Senator as well and witnessed the poisonous seep of partisanship corrode the institution, yet the Bidens and McCains still remained close friends. She concluded by describing Biden’s bipartisan work reaching out to find common ground, lamenting that “It was a style of legislating and leadership that you don’t find much anymore.”

The final speaker of the night, Biden’s wife Dr. Jill Biden, expanded on the theme of personalizing her husband as an uncommonly decent man in modern American politics. Biden, a longtime schoolteacher, spoke from a classroom in Wilmington, Delaware; she began by referencing her love for teaching, saying “I have always loved the sounds of a classroom. The quiet that sparks with possibility just before students shuffle in, the murmur of ideas bouncing back and forth as we explore the world together.” She then turned to the issue of the pandemic, lamenting that “But this quiet is heavy. You can hear the anxiety that echoes down empty hallways. There’s no scent of new notebooks or freshly waxed floors. The rooms are dark as the bright young faces that should fill them are now confined to boxes on a computer screen.”

She drew a line between the feeling of loss felt by Americans everywhere and Joe Biden’s own story of personal loss; as a newly elected senator in 1972, Joe Biden suffered an unimaginable tragedy when his first wife and daughter were killed in an automobile accident. Jill Biden described her experience: “I fell in love with a man and two little boys standing in the wreckage of unthinkable loss, mourning a wife, and mother, a daughter, and sister.” She continued, “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…We have shown that the heart of this nation still beats with kindness and courage.”

Dr. Jill Biden (left), wife of the official Democratic nominee Joe Biden (right), delivered the final address of the night. Speaking from a classroom in Delaware, she stressed Biden’s personal story of overcoming tragedies such as the car accident which claimed the lives of his first wife and daughter, as well as the death of his son Beau Biden from brain cancer in 2015, and how “if we entrust this nation to Joe, he will do for your family what he did for ours, bring us together and make us whole”. Photo credits: 6abc Action News.

She then recounted how her husband suffered another unimaginable loss when their son Beau died of cancer in 2015, while Joe Biden was serving as Vice President: “Four days after Beau’s funeral, I watched Joe shave and put on his suit. I saw him steel himself in the mirror, take a breath, put his shoulders back, and walk out into a world empty of our son. He went back to work. That’s just who he is…He does it for you. Joe’s purpose has always driven him forward. His strength of will is unstoppable and his faith is unshakable. Because it’s not in politicians or political parties or even in himself, it’s in the Providence of God. His faith is in you, in us.”

In her final peroration, Jill Biden finished, “with Joe as president, these classrooms will ring out with laughter and possibility once again….I know that if we entrust this nation to Joe, he will do for your family what he did for ours, bring us together and make us whole, carry us forward in our time of need, keep the promise of America for all of us.” As she finished her last words, her husband emerged from behind the camera and embraced her. Cheekily introducing himself as “Jill Biden’s husband”, the new Democratic nominee explained, “You can see why she’s the love of my life and the rock of our family.”

The second night of the Democratic National Convention showed a party comfortable with its identity of geographical, gender, and racial diversity, but still struggling with its ideological differences; while the theme of generational change was everywhere, the strong undercurrent of the progressive-moderate rift remained tense. Nonetheless, the pivot to focus on Joe Biden’s personal qualities of decency and moral clarity remains a unifying force in the party; it remains to be seen whether it can be an effective message to the American public this fall.