The second night of the 2020 Democratic National Convention wasn’t as tightly organized and thematic as night one, with its extensive presentations on the three big national challenges they’ve accused Donald Trump of failing even to understand (racial justice, the coronavirus pandemic, and the economic collapse). Nor were there the memorable hard-hitting exhortations of the moral obligation to turn out and vote Trump out of office delivered by Bernie Sanders and Michelle Obama on Monday.
Tuesday night, the Donkey Party got a lot of obligatory chores out of the way with as much efficient verve as they could manage. There was a “keynote” address that was actually a set of videos featuring diverse “rising stars” from their elected ranks; remarks by former presidents (saving the most popular former president, Barack Obama, for Wednesday night); nominating speeches for the final two candidates that managed to give progressive comet Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a moment in the sun; and a “roll call of the states” that mixed together local politicians and “real people” in a colorful reimagining of the ancient ritual of actually nominating a candidate.
As the evening moved toward its climax, convention speakers and videos highlighted two obligatory issues that were only a step below Monday’s three challenges in significance: non-COVID-related health-care issues (especially Biden’s pledge to strengthen the Affordable Care Act amid Republican efforts to destroy it), and national security, a must-discuss for all would-be commanders-in-chief. And as it happens, these were two issues on which the personal qualities claimed for Biden at Trump’s expense — empathy and strength in adversity — were most relevant and compelling.
The speeches prior to Jill Biden’s capper had their occasional moments. Bill Clinton got off a bon mot about Trump being a president who spent all day watching TV and zapping people on social media. John Kerry had one good zinger: “Donald Trump inherited a growing economy and a peaceful world. Like everything else he inherited, he bankrupted it.”
The national-security segment introduced by Kerry gave the party a chance to show off the many military leaders who trust Biden and find Trump an ongoing catastrophe, and also to supplement Monday night’s parade of Republicans crossing lines to back Joe with Colin Powell and the ghost of John McCain (as represented by his widow, Cindy McCain).
But it was all designed to lead up to a video and then a live speech from Dr. Jill Biden that served the dual function of an audition for her as First Lady (the video was, to Biden’s credit, as much about her as about him, and did not treat her as an adornment to his career) and a validator of Uncle Joe as a man abundantly blessed with the two qualities Trump most conspicuously lacks: empathy for those in peril and pain, and strength and presence of mind in times of crisis.
She retold the familiar but harrowing tales of Biden’s loss of a wife and daughter to an auto crash shortly after his election to the Senate, and of son Beau to brain cancer many years later. Dr. Jill made this experience proof of his ability to deal with a struggling and suffering country today:
“How do you make a broken family whole? The same way you make a nation whole. With love and understanding,” Jill Biden said. “The same way you make a nation whole: with love and understanding, and with small acts of compassion; with bravery; with unwavering faith …”
“The burdens we carry are heavy, and we need someone with strong shoulders,” she said. “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.”
There were other clever aspects of Jill Biden’s speech: She spoke as a career educator standing in an empty classroom — the classrooms Trump has sought to fill with vulnerable teachers and students in an irresponsible rush to pretend the pandemic is over. She treated the very situation as the product of a failure of national leadership:
“Yes, so many classrooms are quiet right now. The playgrounds are still. But if you listen closely, you can hear the sparks of change in the air,” Jill Biden said. “Across the country, educators, parents, first responders — Americans of all walks of life — are putting their shoulders back, fighting for each other. We haven’t given up. We just need leadership worthy of our nation. Worthy of you.”
By the time her speech ended, with her husband predictably arriving from the wings to kiss her on the head and introduce himself as “Jill Biden’s husband,” she had thoroughly done her job and concluded an uneven night of odds and ends with a vivid portrait of a couple with unusual relatability and (to cite that overused term) authenticity, particularly compared to the odd extended family that currently occupies and controls the White House. There will be one more night of party mobilization and outreach before Joe Biden caps the first virtual convention with his own acceptance speech, but Democrats are halfway home with a lot accomplished.