Democrats formally nominated Joe Biden for the presidency Tuesday night, anointing him as their standard-bearer against President Donald Trump with an extraordinary virtual roll call vote that showcased the cultural diversity of their coalition and exposed a generational gulf that is increasingly defining the party.
Denied the chance to assemble in Milwaukee, Democratic activists and dignitaries cast their votes from locations across all 50 states and from the American territories and the District of Columbia; from the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to the iconic welcome sign in Las Vegas; and far beyond to the shores of Guam, “where America’s day begins.” They offered a grand mosaic of personal identities and experiences, many speaking in raw terms about their personal aspirations and adversities.
Appearing with his wife in a Delaware school after his home state put him over the top, Biden, 77, was feted by his grandchildren, who burst in with balloons and streamers and wore T-shirts bearing the words “No Malarkey” — one of his favorite phrases — in what amounted to a miniature version of the celebrations that typically ensue after roll call votes. “See you on Thursday,” he said, speaking briefly to thank the delegates, and referring to the day he will formally accept the nomination.
The second night of the Democratic National Convention straddled themes of national security, presidential accountability and continuity between the past and future leaders of the party. Like the opening night on Monday, it took the form of a kind of political variety show. Hosted by actress Tracee Ellis Ross, the program skipped between recorded tributes from political luminaries, personal testimonials from activists and voters, and various forms of music and entertainment.
Two tributes by Republicans carried particular symbolic weight for a Democratic candidate seeking to appeal across party lines: Colin Powell, the retired general and former secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, delivered a message of support for Biden, whom he had previously endorsed. And Cindy McCain, the widow of Sen. John McCain, narrated a video about Biden’s relationship with her husband.
By voting to nominate Biden, Democrats delivered to the former vice president a prize he has pursued intermittently since before the night’s most prominent young speaker, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, was born. Two previous presidential campaigns ended in abrupt defeat: A plagiarism scandal extinguished his hopes in 1988, and his next effort in 2008 fizzled against the higher-wattage candidacies of Hillary Clinton and former President Barack Obama.
When Biden opted not to run for president in 2016, it was widely assumed that his dream of the Oval Office was finished. Instead, Biden’s long-awaited victory is a triumph of personal and political endurance, representing the apex — so far — of a slow upward climb by a man who entered the Senate in 1972 at age 30 as a grieving single father. No other presidential candidate in modern times has endured such a long interval between assuming a first major office and being nominated for the presidency.
As on Monday, much of the program was dominated by some of the most familiar faces from the Democratic Party’s past, including former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, former Secretary of State John Kerry and Caroline Kennedy, a torchbearer of last century’s best-known American dynasty. For all the logistical novelty of a gathering transformed by the coronavirus pandemic, more than a little of the content would have fit comfortably into a convention held during less threatening public health conditions.
More than a dozen younger officials whom Democrats hope to cultivate as leaders of the future were grouped together at the start of the program, giving an unusual kind of collective speech in which they delivered one or two lines at a time in prerecorded messages that were spliced together as a statement framing the stakes of the election.
Replacing the traditional keynote address, the group delivering this oratorical collage included mayors from Alabama and California; members of Congress from Texas and Pennsylvania; and state lawmakers from Nevada, Georgia and several other states.
Many of the up-and-coming Democrats were rewarded because they were early Biden supporters, but the Zoom-style speeches ended with extended remarks from a party figure who stayed out of the primary race: Stacey Abrams, the Georgia Democrat who narrowly lost a 2018 bid for governor and is now a voting rights advocate. “In a democracy, we do not elect saviors,” said Abrams, tempering expectations about Biden. “We cast our ballots for those who see our struggles and pledge to serve.”
The program also included a break from convention tradition — Biden himself was set to make a cameo appearance, which nominees rarely do before the final night of the event.
Jill Biden, the former second lady, occupied the most prominent speaking slot of the night.
Addressing a nation consumed by crises, she used her prime-time speech during the second night of the Democratic convention to make the case that her husband understood the urgent challenges facing American families — and that he had the experience and character to meet the moment.
Speaking from a classroom at Brandywine High School, where she once taught English in the 1990s, Biden described how the pandemic has disrupted education in the country, tearing at the fabric of families, communities and the economy nationwide.
“This quiet is heavy. You can hear the anxiety that echoes down empty hallways,” Biden said. “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.”
“I hear it from so many of you — the frustration of parents juggling work while they support their children’s learning,” she said. “The despair in the lines that stretch out before food banks, and the indescribable sorrow that follows every lonely last breath that follows when the ventilators turn off.”
Never one to cede the spotlight, Trump went to extraordinary lengths earlier Tuesday to draw attention away from the Democrats by issuing a posthumous pardon for suffragist Susan B. Anthony. However, he diverted attention from his intended diversion by using a White House news conference with women clad in the white attire of the suffrage movement to criticize Michelle Obama for pre-taping her address and for understating the number of Americans who have died from the coronavirus.
On Tuesday evening, Democrats unspooled a virtual version of a venerable convention tradition: the roll call vote.
The presentation read as a state-by-state catalog of many of the most dangerous crises facing the country, as local activists and elected leaders were assigned to detail their own experiences with Trump-era crises as they cast their delegate votes for Biden.
There was an Alaskan fisherman who laid out the threat of climate change, and a New York nurse who spoke on behalf of health care employees working in dangerous conditions. A Puerto Rican legislator denounced Trump’s treatment of the island, and a Nebraska meatpacker spoke about risks to essential workers during the pandemic.
Casting Florida’s votes for Biden, Fred Guttenberg, the father of a young student slain in the Parkland school shooting, recalled Biden’s call to him after the tragedy and predicted that once in office Biden and his vice-presidential pick Kamala Harris would vanquish the National Rifle Association.
Some states, as is customary, used their time to promote their specialties. Rhode Island, for instance, used part of its video to promote its homegrown calamari.
If the roll call vote reflected the diverse array of constituencies that make up today’s Democratic Party, some of the other speakers recalled an earlier era, including Kerry, the party’s 2004 nominee, and Bill Clinton.Clinton was thrilled to be asked to appear because there was some question as to whether he would be invited to do so, according to Democratic officials who spoke to him in recent weeks. Yet his prerecorded remarks, which aired before the convention’s prime viewing hour, represented a remarkable comedown for a once-towering political figure whose 2012 speech on behalf of Barack Obama was hailed as a triumph of political oratory.
Still, Clinton was able to offer a warm character reference for Biden, with whom he has enjoyed a mostly genial political relationship for decades. A dozen years after giving Biden a heartfelt recommendation at the 2008 Democratic convention — “I love Joe Biden, and America will, too,” he said then — Clinton elaborated further.
In his limited time, Clinton delivered a scathing indictment of Trump, deeming him a “buck never stops there” president who spends “hours a day watching TV and zapping people on social media.” By contrast, Clinton said, Biden “would be a go-to-work president.” The choice, said the former president, was between a president who will continue to “blame, bully and belittle” and one who, borrowing Biden’s slogan, will “build back better.”
Tuesday’s lineup did not, however, only tilt back to the past. There were also a number of speakers who prompted considerable thinking about tomorrow, to borrow the anthem of Clinton’s 1992 campaign.
Nowhere was that more evident than in the juxtaposition of two New Yorkers who are both on the rise, and perhaps on a collision course.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, who is all but certain to become majority leader should Democrats take control of the chamber this fall, spoke shortly before Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 30-year-old champion of the party’s left wing, whom some progressives are urging to challenge Schumer in 2022.
Ocasio-Cortez was used her appearance — which some liberals felt was too brief for a rising star — to nudge Biden and Democrats toward embracing a more progressive vision. The country, she said, was thirsting for “deep systemic solutions to our crises.”
Even her limited role in the convention seemed to carry a larger political portent: Ocasio-Cortez gave a nominating speech for Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a defeated hero to Ocasio-Cortez and her supporters, who has surely run his last presidential race and whose political movement is already in search of a new figurehead.