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4 Takeaways From Night 2 Of The Democratic National Convention

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden joins his wife Jill Biden in a classroom after her address to the virtual Democratic National Convention on Tuesday.
Screenshot of DNCC livestream via Getty Images
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden joins his wife Jill Biden in a classroom after her address to the virtual Democratic National Convention on Tuesday.

After former first lady Michelle Obama's foreboding address Monday about the consequences of a second term for President Trump, and her urgent appeal that people "vote for Joe Biden like our lives depend on it," the second night of the Democratic National Convention focused on building the case for how Biden would restore a country struggling in an economic and public health crisis.

The main messenger — Jill Biden — delivered an intimate speech that wove together her career as an educator with her story about how her partnership with Joe Biden began with an effort to heal a broken and grieving family.

Democrats continued to highlight their priority for quality and affordable health care with an emotional appeal from an activist stricken with Lou Gehrig's disease. After Democrats focused the 2018 midterms on the threat of the GOP dismantling the Affordable Care Act, the Biden campaign and congressional candidates are confident the issue is an effective one to use in suburban battlegrounds around the country this fall.

Tuesday's lineup featured elder Democratic statesmen including two former presidents, but their appearances highlighted how much the party has changed, and how the energy of younger stars is focused on an agenda far more progressive than these leaders envisioned when they served in office decades earlier.

And because of the coronavirus pandemic, for the first time the party nominated its candidate for president in a highly produced remote roll call vote. Biden, in his third run for the White House, finally secured the nomination, setting up a contentious general election against Trump.

Some takeaways from the second of the four-night Democratic National Convention:

1. Jill Biden worked to put character on the ballot and offer a hopeful message

Walking through an empty hallway and classroom in the Delaware school where she taught when Joe Biden served in the U.S. Senate, Jill Biden delivered a live speech that started out with a subtle critique of the Trump administration's handling of the coronavirus pandemic by highlighting the dynamic that most teachers and parents are struggling with as the school year begins — remote learning.

"[T]his quiet is heavy," she said, adding, "you can hear the anxiety that echoes down empty hallways."

Jill Biden was introduced by a video with family members discussing her personal strength and resiliency as a young woman who met a widower who had lost his wife and baby daughter in a car crash and was raising two young sons. The story of Joe Biden's family tragedy at the age of 30 just weeks after winning his Senate seat in 1972 has been a key part of his political biography. His wife's recounting suggested the experience will translate to her role as first lady, and her husband's role as president.

"How do you make a broken family whole? The same way you make a nation whole," she said. "With love and understanding and with small acts of kindness. With bravery. With unwavering faith."

Unlike Michelle Obama's direct attack on Trump Monday night, Jill Biden didn't mention the current president's name. She offered a more hopeful message, recounting stories about how her husband rebounded from searing family tragedies. And she took a positive view about how people are picking up the pieces during a hard time.

"Across the country, educators, parents, first responders, Americans of all walks of life are putting their shoulders back, fighting for each other," she said. "We haven't given up."

While enthusiasm for Joe Biden's candidacy may not be intense in a party that had significant divisions during the primaries, the message from Jill Biden was that her husband's character contrasts with that of the current occupant of the Oval Office — and that his lifelong career of public service demonstrates he has the experience to work on issues that matter to people concerned about the future. She set aside ideological issues and made the argument that Joe Biden's moral compass is what the country needs.

2. Health care remains the central issue Democrats want to wield against the GOP, but they are still divided on what course to take

One of the emotional speeches of the night came from Ady Barkan, a health care advocate stricken with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) who delivered his remarks from a wheelchair via a computer-generated voice.

"Even during this terrible crisis, Donald Trump and Republican politicians are trying to take away millions of people's health insurance," Barkan said.

Barkan gained national attention for his efforts pushing "Medicare for All." He backed Elizabeth Warren's presidential campaign as the broad field of Democratic candidates debated the merits of a massive overhaul and what it would mean to transition from private health care plans to a government system.

Biden has backed expanding the Affordable Care Act — not Medicare for All, one issue that continues to frustrate those on the left of the party who remain disappointed that then-President Obama set aside his plans for a single-payer system. But Barkan didn't press specifically for Medicare for All in his speech, or bring up the internal divide — instead he warned about the "existential threat of another four years of this president."

Other speakers hit on health care, too — Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., pledged if Democrats took control of the Senate they would "make health care affordable for all."

The House Democrats' campaign arm has also signaled that it believes health care is the single most important issue animating voters this fall — especially as more Americans see the impact of the coronavirus.

3. There was a focus on Democratic elders when energy in the party is coming from younger, progressive elected leaders

Tuesday's program included testimonials from former presidents who are always familiar faces at political conventions. Former President Bill Clinton, who has had prime slots at conventions for decades and is famous for lengthy remarks, gave a condensed address in the more subdued setting of his living room.

Like Jill Biden, he made character an issue — and attacked Donald Trump.

"Now you have to decide whether to renew his contract or hire someone else," Clinton said. "If you want a president who defines the job as spending hours a day watching TV and zapping people on social media, he's your man."

Former President Jimmy Carter, who is 95 and ailing, voiced-over a video that featured pictures of Biden endorsing him during his 1976 campaign. 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry spoke about his long relationship with Biden during his time in the Senate and as secretary of state during the Obama administration.

Nostalgia for former Democratic leaders is a quadrennial tradition, and this year's remote convention observed it, too. Caroline Kennedy, daughter of former President John F. Kennedy, and her son John Schlossberg, were given prominent roles, which they used to describe Biden's ties to the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, arguing Biden was a bridge from the past to the new generation of Democrats focused on climate change.

"In this election, our future is on the ballot. For my generation, it will define the rest of our lives," Schlossberg said.

But the brand of politics that many of these party elders espoused is no longer in vogue. Clinton campaigned for president as a centrist and famously promised during a 1996 State of the Union address that "the era of big government is over." But progressive Democrats that Biden singles out as future leaders are pushing for the return of big government — in health care, in the energy sector, in education and the environment.

New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive freshman, has built a national profile as "AOC" and pushed party leaders to embrace Medicare for All. Despite being a social media sensation and popular draw as a surrogate for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' campaign, she was given a brief and early slot on Tuesday's program — something fellow progressives viewed as a slight after Republican John Kasich, the former Ohio governor and 2016 GOP presidential candidate, got prime-time billing Monday night.

Biden has talked about being a bridge to the next generation, but so far the convention has not given much prominence to younger figures on the left — perhaps because the party is hoping to convince wavering independents and moderates that Biden needs their support to change direction in the White House.

Ocasio-Cortez, who was allotted less than two minutes, presented a long list of issues she said needed to be addressed, "including guaranteed health care, higher education, living wages and labor rights for all people in the United States."

Instead of picking one rising star to deliver the keynote speech — a convention tradition — Democrats picked 17 young elected leaders in an effort to demonstrate the party's diversity. Stacey Abrams, the Black former Georgia state legislator who ran a close race for governor in 2018, was one who already had a national profile. But others included Robert Garcia, an immigrant from Peru who was the first openly gay mayor elected in Long Beach, Calif.; Colin Allred, an African American freshman representing a competitive congressional district in Texas; and Sam Park, the first openly gay man elected to the state legislature in Georgia.

Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg downplayed the prominence of older party leaders and discounted any gap between their views and those of the newer generation of elected leaders.

"You heard from every part of our party and every part of our country," he told NPR after Tuesday's program.

4. The remote roll call vote nominating Biden was better than the traditional convention floor routine

With delegates unable to travel to Milwaukee, convention organizers decided to show Democrats from each state and territory via satellite link — some live and some taped — formally granting Joe Biden the title of his party's presidential nominee.

Traditionally, the lengthy roll call vote features brief speeches from the convention floor as delegates boast about their state's key industries or political leaders. Instead, the screen presented an impressive television production that gave the viewer a tour of the country and featured some familiar faces like Buttigieg; Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey outside Biden's childhood home in Scranton; and speaking from Charlottesville, Va., Khizr Khan, the Gold Star parent who criticized Trump at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Rhode Island's turn featured a state senator discussing the challenges facing restaurants during the pandemic, standing on the beach touting the "calamari comeback."

Despite the novelty of the virtual roll call vote, once Biden was officially named the nominee, Democrats capped it off with "Celebration," a 1980 song by Kool and the Gang — proving that some convention musical traditions never die.

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Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.